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The Advent of the Algorithm: The 300-Year Journey from an Idea to the Computer Paperback – May 3, 2001

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; 1 edition (May 3, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156013916
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156013918
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,166,025 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Francis Sullivan of the Institute for Defense Analysis said "Great algorithms are the poetry of computation"; David Berlinski calls the algorithm "the idea that rules the world." The Advent of the Algorithm is not so much a history of algorithms as a historical fantasia. Berlinski spins freely between semifictional accounts of historical figures, personal reminiscence, and mathematical proofs--without ever really defining an algorithm in so many words.

This is not the book for those who were maddened by Berlinski's A Tour of the Calculus; his style remains quirky, digressive, self-referential, and dense:

And then, by some inscrutable incandescent insight, Leibniz came to see that what is crucial in what he had written is the alternation between God and Nothingness. And for this, the numbers 0 and 1 suffice.

Twinkies and Diet Coke in hand, computer programmers can now be observed pausing thoughtfully at their consoles.

Berlinski's argument seems to be that algorithms--step-by-step procedures for getting answers--superceded logic, and will be superceded in turn by more biological, empirical, fuzzy methods. The structure of the book reflects this argument--sketches of people like Leibniz, Hilbert, Gödel, and Turing are interwoven with proofs and with characters of Berlinski's own invention. Berlinski's voice, closer to Hofstadter than to Knuth, remains unique. --Mary Ellen Curtin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

I have very mixed feelings about this book.
In addition to the prose style itself, the book is littered with fictional asides that are meant to illustrate subtle points but end up being a distraction.
D. Thompson
The ONLY reason this book is getting two stars from me is because it does look like there is some real potential in this book.
James Brust

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

130 of 140 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 24, 2000
Format: Hardcover
David Berlinski has delivered another fascinating tale of an underappreciated topic. What he did for the calculus he now does for the algorithm. The text preserves all of Berlinski's extravagant, quirky and sometimes difficult style, shifting between careful analysis, historical drama, insightful explanation, and obscure fictional aside. Readers will either love it or hate it. (I love it.)
Unfortunately, some readers misunderstand Berlinski's subtlety and insight. For instance, the official trade review of the book complains that Berlinski never really defines "algorithm." This is incorrect. The introduction concludes with an offset definition: "In the logician's voice: an algorithm is a finite procedure, written in a fixed symbolic vocabulary, governed by precise instructions, moving in discrete steps, 1, 2, 3,..., whose execution requires no insight, cleverness, intuition, intelligence, or perspicuity, and that sooner or later comes to an end." It doesn't get much clearer than that. But Berlinski doesn't ponder long over what he takes to be obvious, and he doesn't always speak in the logician's voice.
The Advent of the Algorithm demonstrates that a seemingly dull concept can have unimaginably profound implications. Those implications illuminate everything from computing and information technology to the nature of life and the universe. And ultimately (not to spoil the ending) Berlinski argues that the advent of the algorithm foretells the end of scientific materialism, suggesting nothing so much as a world permeated by the marks of intelligence and design. To paraphrase, we are shocked to discover information--something we had assumed was found exclusively in the domain of human activity--flourishing on the alien shores of biology.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Michael Wischmeyer on February 9, 2002
Format: Hardcover
First, symbolic logic is not an easy subject and requires attention to detail. Second, Berlinski's discursive style can require the reader to be accomodating and patient. Some may abandon Berlinski in frustration. But others will discover that Berlinski has created a rather unique work.

It is easy to be disoriented by Berlinski's eclectic mix of fiction, biography, essays, and mathematics. I would hunker down for some serious math, but be sidetracked to an unfamiliar Greek fable. Just as quickly I was being introduced - with surprising clarity - to propositional calculus, truth tables, and tautologies. Another sidetrack and I was privy to the delusional thoughts of some stranger.

At this point I fortuitously observed fine print on the copyright page: "This is a work of scholarship. The author has woven stories, involving imagined people and incidents into the text, the better to enable the reader to enjoy the technical discussions. Or to endure them." I relaxed and accepted that while my road might be a bit bumpy, I now had some understanding of Berlinski's itinerary.

I particularly valued the short biographies of the mathematicians and logicians that played key roles in developing symbolic logic and its protege, the algorithm. My attitude was more mixed regarding the playful stories (pure fiction) "woven"
into the text. Although some shed light on the technical discussions from unexpected perspectives,I found other stories to be more distracting than helpful.

Notwithstanding the occasional flights of fancy, "The Advent of the Algorithm" is indeed "a work of scholarship". Clarity characterizes most technical sections, but careful reading is still necessary. The technical sections include:

categorical syllogism (pg.
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful By James Brust on December 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
First of all, I somewhat liked A Tour of the Calculus, and found it much easier reading than Advent of the Algorithm. Especially considering that the prose here is so annoyingly affected, that I couldn't get farther than a couple of chapters. I have tried in good faith to finish the book, but I really could not, and I do have to apologize for any incompleteness of my review as a result.

Also, I consider some of the earlier digressions--in the part of the book I was able to get through--to be okay, as far as content goes. However, these and everything else in the book seem to just be marred by the crippling excesses of this guy's prose.

So many people have said enough about this guy's writing that it would seem to speak for itself, so at first I wasn't going to weigh in. However, there have been a few people writing to claim that Berlinski's writing style is refreshing, and more approachable than the dry, prosaic style of a textbook. I MUST set the record straight here, for those who have not tried this book out.

I can understand the frustration some people have when "popular" books on science or mathematics might not be as interesting as we'd like to hope. But Berlinski's style is NOT poetic, and it is NOT refreshing. It is NOT like some chap at a pub explaining something to you, because most likely the "some chap" is not going out of his way to speak in an artificial, over-poetic (to the point that it is NOT poetic) way, often using unnecessarily obscure words. Other reviewers have cited examples--though some examples are more telling than others.

Have you ever known somebody who speaks or writes in an unnecessarily affected way, in order to appear smarter than he really is? Berlinski writes like that.
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