👓 Book review by Nicolas Rashevsky of Information theory in biology | The bulletin of mathematical biophysics

Read Book review of Information theory in biology by Nicolas Rashevsky (The bulletin of mathematical biophysics, June 1954, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 183‚Äď185)

While sifting through some old bookmarks from CiteULike which is going to disappear from the web soon, I ran across one for this book review of Henry Quastler’s book Information Theory in Biology (1953).

The last page of the review had an interesting information theoretical take on not only book reviews, but the level of information they contain with respect for improved teaching and learning in an era prior to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas about “flow”.

As it isn’t the easiest thing to track down, I’ll quote the relevant paragraphs from page 185:

The purpose of a scientific book (we at least hope!) is to store and convey information in a given field. The purpose of a review is to convey  information about a book. It is therefore legitimate to attempt a mathematical theory of writing books and to find the optimal conditions which make a book good. At first it may seem that the optimal conditions consist of maximizing the amount of information per page, that is, in minimizing the redundancy. But a certain amount of redundancy may not only be desirable, but necessary. When presenting a new subject to young students who have never heard of it, a judicious amount of repetition is good pedagogy. Giving an exact abstract definition and then illustrating it by an example already constitutes a logical redundancy. But how useful it frequently is! The minimum of redundancy that is found in some well-known and excellent mathematical books (nomina sunt odiosa!) occasionally makes those books difficult to read even for mathematicians.
The optimum amount of redundancy is a function of the information and intelligence of the reader for whom the book is written. The analytical form of this function is to be determined by an appropriate mathematical theory of learning. Writing a book even in a field which belongs entirely to the domains of Her Majesty the Queen of Sciences is, alas, still more an art than a science. Is it not possible, however, that in the future it may become an exact science?
If a reviewer’s information and intelligence are exactly equal to the value for which the book has been optimized, then he will perceive as defects in the book only deviations from the optimal conditions. His criticism will be objective and unbiased. If, however, the reviewer’s information and intelligence deviate in any direction from the value for which the book is intended, then he will perceive shortcomings which are not due to the deviation of the book from the optimum, but to the reviewer’s personal characteristics. He may also perceive some advantages in the same way. If in the society of the future every individual will be tagged, through appropriate tests, as to his information and intelligence at a given time, expressed in appropriate units, then a reviewer will be able to calculate the correction for his personal bias. These are fantastic dreams of today, which may become reality in the future.

Some of this is very indicative of why one has to spend some significant time finding and recommending the right textbooks [1][2] for students and why things like personalized learning and improvements in pedagogy are so painfully difficult. Sadly on the pedagogy side we haven’t come as far as he may have hoped in nearly 70 ears, and, in fact, we may have regressed.

I’ve often seen web developers in the IndieWeb community mention the idea that “naming things is hard”, so I can’t help but noticing that this 1950’s reviewer uses the Latin catchphrase nomina sunt odiosa which translates as “names are odious”, which has a very similar, but far older sentiment about naming. It was apparently a problem for the ancients as well.

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  • Chris Aldrich

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