Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Popular CS Books, or lack thereof

In an IM conversation, Ravi Kumar of Yaho
o! Research points out that there aren't any "popular" computer science books -- there isn't a Timothy Gowers or E.T. Bell or Brian Greene or Richard Dawkins. (When I invited Ravi to write a guest blog article on this subject, he promptly backed out, though -- another reluctant writer within our ranks :-)

I wonder why. Oxford Press' "Very Short Introduction" series has nearly 30 titles in the "Science" section, including such topics as "Philosophy of Science" and "Jung" and "Consciousness", but none on the science of computing. There's one on cryptography, but I am quite certain no two scientists who consider themselves cryptographers will agree on what ought to be in a book with that title :-). Absolutely nothing on the "Internet" or "Algorithms" or even "Artificial Intelligence", a favorite among the non-scientific audience. John Battelle's "Search" has made it to under-200 on the Amazon sales rank, but that's more of a meta-CS book (historical anecdotes, biographical stories, business wisdom, etc.) than an actual CS book.

Even the mighty Christos Papadimitriou's "novel about computation" Turing doesn't seem to have made a dent (if it's any indication, his "Computational Complexity" book sells more on Amazon than does Turing). Noam Nisan has a new book "The Elements of Computing Systems: Building a Modern Computer from First Principles" (with Shimon Schocken), which I haven't seen yet (reviews welcome as comments!). From the blurb on Amazon, this seems to be more of a course textbook; don't expect it to become an NYT #1 seller in the nonfiction category.

Why isn't there a popular book talking about how some early computer scientists like Turing and von Neumann had tremendous foresight and got some basic "design decisions" right (like universal machine, stored program computer, etc.)? If there's a CS book for the masses, what, gentle reader, would you like to see in it?


Jillu said...

Dear Siva,
completely off the topic- This is Magesh. A friend of mine forwarded your blog link and asked whether its the Sivakumar known to me. Hence got to drop in to your blog. Thought would say Hi!!.

Warm regards,
ps:: Sometime ago i had looked into ur papers and found that ur doing some reserach on blogs..but nice to see ur blog.

Anonymous said...

what about David Harel's book?

D. Sivakumar said...

Yes, David Harel's Computers Ltd.: What They Really Can't Do is precisely the kind of book I am referring to.

A bit unfortunately, the title is a bit limiting in capturing potential buyers' attention.

I heard once that David Harel was also the "anchor" of a popular television show in Israel about computer science.


Anonymous said...

What about "The Computational Beauty of Nature" by the former director of Yahoo Research Labs, Gary William Flake?

Anonymous said...

I might suggest Knuth's _Selected Papers in Computer Science_. The first volume collects papers intended for a non-CS audience. Some of them are pitched at a general mathematical audience, others have relatively little math in them at all.

Anonymous said...

Godel, Escher, Bach - the eternal golden braid.
Its not a computer science book per se, but the underlying concepts that the author talks about are all related to theory of computing. And its already a best-seller (and a Pulitzer prize winner).