The best books about algorithms for people who don’t know anything about algorithms

John MacCormick Author Of Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future: The Ingenious Ideas That Drive Today's Computers
By John MacCormick

Who am I?

Once upon a time, I was a computer science researcher, working in the research labs of companies like Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard. Later I started teaching computer science to college students and writing books about algorithms. I love computers and I love algorithms. Most of all, I love explaining algorithms to other people. In fact, one of my most important missions in life is to advance the public understanding of computer science and algorithms. So if you read any of the books on my list, you’ll bring me one step closer to achieving my mission. Go ahead, read one now!

I wrote...

Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future: The Ingenious Ideas That Drive Today's Computers

By John MacCormick,

Book cover of Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future: The Ingenious Ideas That Drive Today's Computers

What is my book about?

Nine revolutionary algorithms that power our computers and smartphones, described using vivid examples in language that anyone can understand.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Why did I love this book?

This is the original and the best deconstruction of algorithmic bias, written by an insider who has seen firsthand how the sausage is made. As a pure math professor turned hedge fund quant, Cathy O’Neil has the tools to rip open algorithmic cans of worms, from financial crises to college admissions. Paradoxically, she does this with equal measures of gusto and clarity, making this the most fun depressing book on my bookshelf.

By Cathy O’Neil,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Weapons of Math Destruction as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A manual for the 21st-century citizen... accessible, refreshingly critical, relevant and urgent' - Financial Times

'Fascinating and deeply disturbing' - Yuval Noah Harari, Guardian Books of the Year

In this New York Times bestseller, Cathy O'Neil, one of the first champions of algorithmic accountability, sounds an alarm on the mathematical models that pervade modern life -- and threaten to rip apart our social fabric.

We live in the age of the algorithm. Increasingly, the decisions that affect our lives - where we go to school, whether we get a loan, how much we pay for insurance - are being made…

Book cover of The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer

Why did I love this book?

A graphic novel about Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, and their quixotic Victorian escapades designing computers and algorithms nearly a century before their time? As fascinating as that may already sound, it’s only the beginning. This is the only graphic novel I’ve read that has footnotes to the footnotes—immensely amusing footnotes. While reading this book, I feel constantly in the presence of insane genius. (But please read this book on physical paper. It is a work of art.)

By Sydney Padua,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the British Book Design and Production Award for Graphic Novels
Winner of the Neumann Prize in the History of Mathematics

In The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage Sydney Padua transforms one of the most compelling scientific collaborations into a hilarious set of adventures

Meet two of Victorian London's greatest geniuses... Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron: mathematician, gambler, and proto-programmer, whose writings contained the first ever appearance of general computing theory, a hundred years before an actual computer was built. And Charles Babbage, eccentric inventor of the Difference Engine, an enormous clockwork calculating machine that would have…

Book cover of Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions

Why did I love this book?

I like to think of this book as the Thinking Fast and Slow for computer science and algorithms. Danny Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow taught us how to apply ideas from psychology to our own lives. Christian and Griffiths do the same thing for algorithms—it’s what they call “human algorithm design”. I was amazed at how much I learned from this book, even after I had been teaching college computer science for years and writing books about algorithms myself.

By Brian Christian, Tom Griffiths,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Algorithms to Live By as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A fascinating exploration of how computer algorithms can be applied to our everyday lives.

In this dazzlingly interdisciplinary work, acclaimed author Brian Christian and cognitive scientist Tom Griffiths show us how the simple, precise algorithms used by computers can also untangle very human questions. Modern life is constrained by limited space and time, limits that give rise to a particular set of problems. What should we do, or leave undone, in a day or a lifetime? How much messiness should we accept? The authors explain how to have better hunches and when to leave things to chance, how to deal…

Book cover of The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible

Why did I love this book?

The most important unanswered question in computer science has a huge public relations problem. Back in the 1970s, this question became known as “P=NP?”—and who could write an exciting book about that? Luckily for us, Lance Fortnow can. As one of the world’s foremost experts on P-vs-NP, he takes us on a wild and truly accessible ride through the most important question about computing. I’ve seen many attempts at making “P=NP?” accessible/understandable/intriguing for non-experts. But Fortnow nails it like nobody else, reformulating P-vs-NP as a search for one of the golden tickets in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (Which is another one of my favorite books, even though it’s not going to make it onto this list about algorithms.)

By Lance Fortnow,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Golden Ticket as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The P-NP problem is the most important open problem in computer science, if not all of mathematics. Simply stated, it asks whether every problem whose solution can be quickly checked by computer can also be quickly solved by computer. The Golden Ticket provides a nontechnical introduction to P-NP, its rich history, and its algorithmic implications for everything we do with computers and beyond. Lance Fortnow traces the history and development of P-NP, giving examples from a variety of disciplines, including economics, physics, and biology. He explores problems that capture the full difficulty of the P-NP dilemma, from discovering the shortest…

Book cover of Probably Approximately Correct: Nature's Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World

Why did I love this book?

In a world full of buzzwords about the latest AI algorithms, Leslie Valiant is one of the few authors who can shrug off the hype and deliver something truly profound. Valiant is a Turing Award winner whose work has changed the face of computational learning theory. His ideas show how algorithms can arise naturally, as part of evolution. (He calls them ecorithms.) These ideas are stunningly original. I admire Valiant’s no-nonsense prose style immensely—it’s such a pleasure to read something where the ideas and explanations are simultaneously so clear and so deep that they provide their own star power.

By Leslie Valiant,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Probably Approximately Correct as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From a leading computer scientist, a unifying theory that will revolutionize our understanding of how life evolves and learns.How does life prosper in a complex and erratic world? While we know that nature follows patterns,such as the law of gravity,our everyday lives are beyond what known science can predict. We nevertheless muddle through even in the absence of theories of how to act. But how do we do it?In Probably Approximately Correct , computer scientist Leslie Valiant presents a masterful synthesis of learning and evolution to show how both individually and collectively we not only survive, but prosper in a…

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