Papers We Love: A Mathematical Theory of Communication

I gave this talk at Papers We Love, June 2016.


Shannon’s “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” is one of those rare papers that defined an entire field of study. (In fact, a year later, it was republished as “THE Mathematical Theory of Communication.”) It provided a unified understanding of communication systems, pulling together work from disparate disciplines like physics, electronics and telegraphy.

In this paper, Shannon demonstrates that information is a measurable quantity, and transmission of information can be optimized to achieve fundamental, previously unknown limits. It’s one of those papers that underlies so much of modern information theory that the material feels intensely familiar to readers now. In addition, it has a bunch of fun tidbits, including the great-grandfather of ebooks Twitter accounts.

I’ll provide a quick history of the field before 1948, discuss the main results of the paper, and mention some of the fun (and occasionally counter-intuitive!) implications of the paper.


Kiran Bhattaram loves making things, whether tinkering with circuits, writing software systems, or sewing dresses. She works on Stripe’s infrastructure team, and has previously built things for the New York Times, LinkedIn and MIT CSAIL.