The following was delivered as the commencement address at the California Institute of Technology, on Friday, June 10th. If this place has done its job--and I suspect it has--you're all scientists now. Sorry, English and history graduates, even you are, too. Science is not a major or a career. It is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation.
Twelve years ago, Robert McEliece, a mathematician and engineer at Caltech, won the Claude E. Shannon Award, the highest honor in the field of information theory. During his acceptance lecture, at an international symposium in Chicago, he discussed the prize's namesake, who died in 2001. Claude Shannon: Born on the planet Earth (Sol III) in the year 1916 A.D. Generally regarded as the father of the information age, he formulated the notion of channel capacity in 1948 A.D. Within several decades, mathematicians and engineers had devised practical ways to communicate reliably at data rates within one per cent of the Shannon limit. As is sometimes the case with encyclopedias, the crisply worded entry didn't quite do justice to its subject's legacy. That humdrum phrase--"channel capacity"--refers to the maximum rate at which data can travel through a given medium without losing integrity.