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Professors discuss the meaning of information

An often overlooked but undoubtedly important question was debated by a panel of faculty members Wednesday evening in a multidisciplinary faculty roundtable entitled "What is Information?"

The panel--moderated by Brian Cantwell-Smith, Kimberly Jenkins University Professor in Philosophy and New Technologies and held at the John Hope Franklin Center--featured the diverse opinions of faculty members from a wide range of departments.

Cantwell-Smith introduced the seven panelists by noting that the study of information is important for all disciplines, but that the breadth of it might, at first glance, seem to make the subject almost vapid.

"If Rip Van Winkle woke up and wandered in here, he might think this forum was kind of pointless," he said.

The panelists, however, demonstrated that a definition of information is a vital contemporary issue. David Brady, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Herbert Edelsbrunner, professor of computer science, both spoke about the quantification of information in their fields.

"Information is a technical term in electrical engineering with a precise mathematical definition," said Brady, director of the Fitzpatrick Center for Photonics and Communications Systems. Edelsbrunner also spoke about a mathematical approach.

"If you can't define something, you model it and describe the model," he said. "I'd like to think of information as the energy gained by going from chaos to order."

Scott Lindroth, associate professor of music, spoke about the way that information is conducted in sound and music and the relationship between information and what produces it.

"It is extremely difficult to describe a sound without naming its source," he said.

One recurring theme throughout the evening was the relational aspect of information.

"Information is embedded in the collective," said Sim Sitkin, an associate professor at the Fuqua School of Business, contrasting the value of information between individuals to that possessed by an individual.

Brady agreed. "A context must be defined in order for the information to be valuable," he said.

Panelists also paid homage to the advantages of an interdisciplinary approach to the question, describing what their own fields could offer to those pursing the question in other departments.

Stephen Nowicki, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass professor of biology, said that a thorough understanding of evolutionary theory was an essential offering of his department. Priscilla Wald, associate professor of English, added that her field studies the way language--the medium of information-affects the information itself.

"Information is never value-neutral, but depends on the media used to conduct it," she said.

A significant part of the evening was devoted to debating an issue raised by Fred Dretske, a senior research scholar in the department of philosophy.

"The reason information is important is that it is true," Dretske said. "Falsehoods can be useful, but they should not be called information."

Other panelists sharply disagreed. Sitkin cited the example of scientific progress.

"Many times science progresses the most quickly after a theory can be shown to be 'broken,'" he said.


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