Thoughtful gifts for curious people

Once Upon an Algorithm: How Stories Explain Computing


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Picture a computer scientist, staring at a screen and clicking frantically on a keyboard, hacking into a system, or maybe designing a website. Now delete that picture.

In Once Upon an Algorithm, computation is explained as something that takes place beyond electronic computers, and computer science as the study of systematic problem solving. After all, many daily activities involve problem solving. Getting up in the morning, for example: You get up, take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast. This simple daily routine solves a recurring problem through a series of well-defined steps. In computer science, such a routine is called an algorithm.

Erwig illustrates a series of concepts in computing with examples from daily life and familiar stories. Hansel and Gretel, for example, execute an algorithm to get home from the forest. The movie Groundhog Day illustrates the problem of unsolvability; Sherlock Holmes manipulates data structures when solving a crime; the magic in Harry Potter's world is understood through types and abstraction; and Indiana Jones demonstrates the complexity of searching. Along the way, there is discussion of representations and different ways to organize data; "intractable" problems; language, syntax, and ambiguity; control structures, loops, and the halting problem; different forms of recursion; and rules for finding errors in algorithms. This engaging book explains computation accessibly and shows its relevance to daily life. Something to think about next time we execute the algorithm of getting up in the morning.

Paperback, 332 pages.
Measures 17.8 x 22.9 cm.