Sunday, June 11, 2006


Bits and er, Bans

As most people are aware, the term bit is short for ‘binary digit’. The coining of this word is credited to the mathematician John Tukey, sometime in the late nineteen thirties or early forties.

Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, was a colleague of John Tukey at Bell Labs, and his way of defining the bit was the amount of information required to distinguish between two equally probable outcomes. Around the same time, the British cryptographer, Alan Turing, had also come up with an idea which represented the amount of evidence that made a guess ten times more likely to be true. He called this unit the ban. (Although I suppose that had this been the ‘winning’ formulation, the dit or ‘decimal digit’ might have been coined!)

These historical insights into the information age and many more can be found in “Fortune’s Formula” by William Poundstone. This is a great read featuring gamblers, mathematicians and gangsters with some classic one liners: “In 1974…A computer was something you saw in a movie (often it went berserk and killed people).”


Powered by Blogger