The Advent of the Algorithm: The Idea That Rules the World

David Berlinski, Author
David Berlinski, Author Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $28 (416p) ISBN 978-0-15-100338-9
Paperback - 368 pages - 978-0-15-601391-8
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Berlinski's successful A Tour of the Calculus displayed his spectacular talent for explaining math and its various real-world consequences. This hefty follow-up explores what Berlinski considers ""the second great scientific idea of the West. There is no third."" Calculus gave us modern physics, but the algorithm gave us--is still giving us--the computer (or, more precisely, the computer program). In short, densely intertwined, lyrically constructed chapters, Berlinski describes the discoveries of major algorithmic thinkers. We hear of Gottfried von Leibniz, one of the founders of formal logic; of Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert and Bertrand Russell, who set out to draw up formal, mathematical criteria for truth; of Kurt G del, who proved that it couldn't be done; of computer pioneer, code breaker and gay martyr Alan Turing; of programs, undecidability, DNA and entropy. We see equations and graphs, but we also hear tales from Isaac Bashevis Singer and bizarre anecdotes of Berlinski's own travels. A novelist (The Body Shop) as well as a mathematician, Berlinski has composed energetic, intertwined tales that make it nearly impossible for readers, once drawn in, to lose interest or to get lost among flying abstractions. (He may well attract the same readers who gravitated, 20 years ago, to Douglas Hofstadter's G del, Escher, Bach, though the books' personalities and prose styles have little in common.) Although not perfect--the book can be hyperbolic or too aphoristic and digressive for those who just want to learn about math (or the philosophy of computing)--this captivating volume is nevertheless an uncommon achievement of both style and substance. Agent, Susan Ginsburg; author tour. (Mar.)
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