In the early 19th century, foundational discoveries in the field of
mathematics, physics, chemistry, and, oddly enough, embroidery paved
the way to developing the lightning-quick computers we rely on today.
Steiglitz explores the course of impact of these discoveries to inform
the reader on how he believes technology will advance in the future.
More History Than Science
Steiglitz’s most exciting literary choice, as prefaced by his quip in the introduction, was to leave (most) equations out. The book is written for a general audience; Steiglitz includes clear explanations of scientific and mathematical material he reviews, although some material benefitted from background knowledge. Steiglitz has successfully written an approachable, in-depth narrative on analog and digital machines. However, The Discrete Charm of the Machine still has much to offer to seasoned computer science veterans. Especially in the treasure trove of the footnotes, where he hides small tidbits, proofs, papers, and the occasional mention of the Antikythera device that veers off his train of thought. The resources he includes are a nice addition for those looking for more specialized readings on the book’s topics but are not essential to illustrate the big picture.
Narrative structure plays a significant role in how Steiglitz portrays
his timeline. At the heart of The Discrete Charm of the Machine is
Steiglitz’s definition of a modern computer, which is broken up into
six general concepts revealed by the discoveries he writes about.
Each chapter draws the reader closer to his definition until we get
a clear understanding of the path history took to reach our level
of machine sophistication. The book rarely abides to chronology and
to great effect. Instead, Steiglitz chooses to highlight the advantages
that digital machines had over analog ones, a concept which he discusses
in great detail. He does this by alternating descriptions of analog
machines and their digital counterparts, focusing on what each machine
contributed towards his definition of a modern computer. Despite this,
the reader is never left behind, unless they are willing to follow
the footnotes in great detail. The brilliance of The Discrete Charm
of the Machine is in its simplicity.
Steiglitz excels in providing context to the quick advancement of digital
machines. He expertly describes fundamental computing topics like ‘transistors’
and ‘NP-complete algorithms’, tying them together to form a basic understanding
of new emerging fields in computer science. The Discrete Charm of the Machine
is a must-read for computer science enthusiasts and casual readers
– Emil Lars Kovačev
- Added categories (Introduction, More History Than Science, Final Thoughts)