Cover image for The advent of the algorithm : the idea that rules the world
The advent of the algorithm : the idea that rules the world
Berlinski, David, 1942-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Harcourt, [2000]

Physical Description:
xviii, 345 pages ; 24 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Subject Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library QA9.58 .B47 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



The algorithm is just code, but it makes things happen. It's the set of abstract, detailed instructions that makes computers run. Any programmer can invent a new algorithm-and many have become millionaires doing just that. Computers, the Internet, virtual reality-our world is being transformed before our eyes, all because some quirky logicians and mathematicians followed the dream of ultimate abstraction and invented the algorithm. Beginning with Leibniz and culminating in the middle of this century with the work of little-known geniuses and eccentrics like Gödel and Turing, David Berlinski tells this epic tale with clarity and imaginative brilliance. You don't have to be a programmer or a math buff to enjoy his book. All you have to do is be fascinated by the greatest innovation of the twentieth century.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Tool or metaphor? More than just a device for parsing data, the computer is rapidly becoming a model for explaining how the universe itself operates. These two books attempt with varying degrees of success to sort it all out. In a volume of remarkable sweep, Siegfried demonstrates just how broadly this model can be applied. From the DNA governing cell nuclei to the wormholes connecting universes, all of nature looks more and more like a vast computer for processing information. Thus, Siegfried sees in the computer our best-ever representation of the deep structure of reality--even as he explores provocative speculations about how revolutionary new quantum computers might mimic that deep structure even more closely. But in his eagerness to enshrine computer imagery as a reflection of truth, Siegfried overlooks those complexities that cannot be captured in such imagery. In contrast, Berlinski's restless curiosity impels him to probe the philosophical limits of the codes--the algorithms--that control the computer. Tracing these codes from Leibniz to the often-serpentine logic of modern geniuses (including Godel and Cantor), Berlinski locates the hidden sources of the algorithm's power as a calculating tool while exposing its defects as a scientific metaphor. No computer algorithm, for instance, can be used to explain the natural origins of the human intellect (which created the highly artificial algorithm being used to do the explaining). Yet for Berlinski, the tortured history of the algorithm illuminates more than just the tethered reach of logic: the thinkers responsible for its development stride across his pages as real people, their frustrations and hopes spilling over into the fictional interludes interspersed throughout the book. A tour de force, this book gives intellectual dilemmas a human face, while restoring grandeur and mystery to a universe still too richly intricate to fit within a computer protocol. --Bryce Christensen

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In his newest work, which complements his A Tour of the Calculus (Pantheon, 1996), professional writer and sometime mathematician Berlinski traces some of the highlights in the development of modern mathematical logic and shows how they have converged on the algorithm--which may be defined as a prescription for carrying through a computation in a finite series of steps. Berlinski compares and contrasts the triumph of the algorithm with the earlier successful career of calculus. His writing style is vivid and dynamic--almost too much so. However, he succeeds in carrying his readers through the basic notation of mathematical logic in a fashion that should work well even for lay readers. Thumbnail biographical sketches of several major logicians and several fragments of fiction further enliven this zesty and unusual book. Recommended for public and academic libraries.--Jack W. Weigel, formerly with Univ. of Michigan Lib., Ann Arbor (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Berlinski can do two things well. First, he can spin prose like a Raymond Chandler, whirring out sentences with weird details and hip hop rhythm. And he can tell a complex mathematical story and get the details right. Here he takes on Turing, Godel, Church, Post, von Neumann, and that crowd, telling the story mathematicians call recursive function theory, starting from Aristotelian logic right through to the recent mind-bending ideas of Gregory Chaitin and hitting all the high points in between. If someone could get this guy to write a book about paying taxes, we could pay off the national debt by next Tuesday. Every dry detail he makes seem like an exotic pleasure. A popular book of course, so certainly no substitute for a textbook or monograph; still, it would do no undergraduate student of the subject any harm to spend a couple of hours inhaling this book before embarking on a more serious study of these matters. In fact, it would set the mood right, clarify the stakes. Highly recommended for all libraries. All levels. D. V. Feldman University of New Hampshire

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