Introduction to: Out of Their Minds

In most sciences, the seminal thinkers lived in the remote past. To uncover what they did and why they did it, we must scavenge in the historical record, picking among scraps of information, trying to separate facts from mythology: Did an apple really fall on Newton's head? Did Archimedes jump out of his bathtub and shout Eureka? Did Euclid steal the secrets of geometry from Egyptian priests while he lived in Egypt?

Computer science is different. The mathematicians who first studied computation in its current form --- Alan Turing, Emil Post, and Alonzo Church --- did their work in the 1930s and 1940s. Their conception of the computer is the one we still live with: a calculating engine and a memory for storing instructions as well as data. They posed the fundamental theoretical question for the field: What can be computed in finite time? To these mathematicians, a ``computer'' could be a human being as easily as a machine --- computing machines that stored instructions did not exist when they began theorizing.

Once computers became an engineering reality in the late 1940s, the important questions in computer science took a pragmatic turn. It was not enough to know that a problem could be solved eventually. Solving it efficiently and, if possible, elegantly became the issue. This required writing instructions for a real machine, finding an efficient solution, building a better computer for bigger versions of the problem, and, sometimes, asking the computer to participate in the creative process. The four parts of this book reflect the four basic questions computer scientists have wrestled with in the last fifty years.

  • Linguists: How should I talk to the machine?
  • Algorithmists: What is a good method for solving a problem fast on my computer?
  • Architects: Can I build a better computer?
  • Sculptors of Machine Intelligence: Can I write a computer program that can find its own solutions?

    This book presents the lives and work of 15 of the greatest living computer scientists. They include seven Turing Award winners, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for computer science, and all are innovators of first rank. In fact, modern computing would be unrecognizable without their contributions. In the following pages, they explain how they became interested in science, how they were influenced by other scientists and their environment, how they arrived at their basic discoveries, and what their vision of the future is.....

    Imagine visiting Isaac Newton in 1690. You might ask for his views about inertial forces and he might tell you his memories of farm life in Woolsthorpe. It is the privilege of talking with the living Isaac Newtons of Computer Science that inspired us to write Out of Their Minds .

    • Excerpt from OUT OF THEIR MINDS: the lives and discoveries of 15 great computer scientists by Dennis Shasha and Cathy Lazere (copyright, all rights reserved 1995) ISBN: 0-387-97992-1
    • Publisher: Copernicus/ An Imprint of Springer-Verlag, New York, Inc./ 175 Fifth Avenue/ New York, New York 10010
    • To order by phone: 1-800- 777-4643
    • Price: $23