SO YOU HAD MOTIVE AND OPPORTUNITY?
I wasn't trying to write about science with the goal of explaining it, but with the goal of reporting the news. I was working for a newspaper, so I was always looking for what was noteworthy. What was happening? What were the latest developments? What do people need to know? We're talking 20-30 years ago. It was much more of a wide-open field than it is now. Today there are so many more people involved and interested.
Computer science and all of the information technologies have changed the landscape quite a bit.
WAS THERE AN IDENTIFIABLE MOMENT WHEN IT BECAME CLEAR TO YOU THAT YOU WERE GOING TO WRITE THE INFORMATION?
A lot of different things over a long period of time led up to the book. When I was working on my short biography of Isaac Newton, I was immersed in the 17th century but already I was sort of thinking in the modes that produced The Information. Everything that had to do with Newton seemed to be about change. And all of the changes that Newton was confronting and initiating seemed to be about information. Newton, in other words, turned out to be as much about information as physics. I've got two examples for you: one sort of big, one very little. Here's the little one: I was flabbergasted looking through his correspondence. When Newton addressed a letter to the president of the Royal Society, he addressed it to Henry Oldenburg, which he misspelled; rather, he spelled it completely differently than its usually spelled today. And then it said "at or about, in or around, Pall Mall," which is a place in London. It was just a bunch of casual words thrown together. And you realize there are no house numbers, there was no formal system of postal address. That is, of course, completely alien to us because we're so comfortable with the idea of formal addresses. In fact, today the word "address" is a computer term. It's a place where you store a piece of information in memory. Computer scientists borrowed it from the postal system, but the postal system had to invent it too. That's a trivial example that made its way, not so wordily, into my book.
YOU MENTIONED A MORE SIGNIFICANT INSTANCE.
A bigger example is, I concluded part of Newton's achievement was to take words that used to be vague and fuzzy — like "motion" and "force" — and make them mathematical. He quantified them. Until Newton could do that, until he could find the words, he could not do the math and invent the science. You can see this very vividly in his writing because you can see him struggling in his drafts, trying out different words and trying to explain what they mean. To really understand Newton's thought process, you have to subtract this knowledge from our brains and try to put ourselves back in the place of somebody living in the 1600s who didn't have those words like "force" and "motion." Newton's was a kind of informational way of thinking.