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The Physical Limits of Communication


  • Michael Lachmann
  • M. E. J. Newman
  • Cristopher Moore


It has been well-known since the pioneering work of Claude Shannon in the 1940s that a message transmitted with optimal efficiency over a channel of limited bandwidth is indistinguishable from random noise to a receiver who is unfamiliar with the language in which the message is written. In this letter we demonstrate an equivalent result about electromagnetic transmissions. We show that when electromagnetic radiation is used as the transmission medium, the most information-efficient format for a given message is indistinguishable from black-body radiation to a receiver who is unfamiliar with that format. The characteristic temperature of the radiation is set by the amount of energy used to make the transmission. If information is not encoded in the direction of the radiation, but only its timing, energy or polorization, then the most efficient format has the form of a one-dimensional black-body spectrum which is easily distinguished from the three-dimensional case.

Suggested Citation

  • Michael Lachmann & M. E. J. Newman & Cristopher Moore, 1999. "The Physical Limits of Communication," Working Papers 99-07-054, Santa Fe Institute.
  • Handle: RePEc:wop:safiwp:99-07-054

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Information theory; thermodynamics; entropy; black body radiation;

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