The best books about computer science without coding

Martin Erwig Author Of Once Upon an Algorithm: How Stories Explain Computing
By Martin Erwig

Who am I?

I’m a professor of computer science at Oregon State University. My research focus is on programming languages, but I also work on computer science education and outreach. I grew up in Germany and moved to the United States in 2000. Since computer science is a fairly new and not widely understood discipline, I am interested in explaining its core ideas to the general public. I believe that in order to attract a more diverse set of people to the field we should emphasize that coding is only a small part of computer science.

I wrote...

Once Upon an Algorithm: How Stories Explain Computing

By Martin Erwig,

Book cover of Once Upon an Algorithm: How Stories Explain Computing

What is my book about?

According to popular culture, computer science is all about coding. This is a tragic misconception that deters many creative students from exploring the field while at the same time disappointing those that only want to code.

At its core, computer science is the science of systematic problem solving, which critically involves the design of representations and their transformations. A precisely described method for solving a problem is called an algorithm, and computation is the execution of an algorithm. My book emphasizes that everybody uses algorithms (and thus computes) all the time—often without a machine, and it explains the major topics of computer science based on everyday examples and well-known stories, without the need to learn how to code.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine

Why did I love this book?

This book is about the design of artifacts that are used by humans. It discusses, in particular, how specific features of cognitive artifacts can support or impede their effective use. The physical artifacts discussed in this book provide concrete illustrations for some abstract computer science notions such as types. I have used some of the examples successfully in talks about computer science for the general audience. A focus of this book is on representations, which plays an important role in many areas of computer science. If you enjoy the examples discussed in this book and like to think about representations, then you are thinking like a computer scientist. 

By Donald A. Norman, Tamara Dunaeff,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Things That Make Us Smart as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Things That Make Us Smart, Donald A. Norman explores the complex interaction between human thought and the technology it creates, arguing for the development of machines that fit our minds, rather than minds that must conform to the machine.Humans have always worked with objects to extend our cognitive powers, from counting on our fingers to designing massive supercomputers. But advanced technology does more than merely assist with thought and memory,the machines we create begin to shape how we think and, at times, even what we value. Norman, in exploring this complex relationship between humans and machines, gives us the…

Book cover of How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

Why did I love this book?

This book is not about computing, but it is relevant in an indirect way. I love this book, since it is written in such an engaging style and illustrates with many examples that math is not a dry subject to be practiced only by mathematicians but helps everyone to solve real-world problems. The book shows how important it is to be precise in describing problems and that applying a little mathematical rigor goes a long way in solving them. Ellenberg describes mathematics as the “extension of common sense by other means.” In a similar way, I view computer science as the extension of problem-solving methods (aka “algorithms”) by other means. 

By Jordan Ellenberg,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked How Not to Be Wrong as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Witty, compelling, and just plain fun to read . . ." -Evelyn Lamb, Scientific American

The Freakonomics of math-a math-world superstar unveils the hidden beauty and logic of the world and puts its power in our hands

The math we learn in school can seem like a dull set of rules, laid down by the ancients and not to be questioned. In How Not to Be Wrong, Jordan Ellenberg shows us how terribly limiting this view is: Math isn't confined to abstract incidents that never occur in real life, but rather touches everything we do-the whole world is shot through…

Book cover of Computers Ltd.: What They Really Can't Do

Why did I love this book?

This book provides a brief introduction to the concept of algorithms before discussing the limitations of computation. Specifically, Harel explains undecidable problems (that is, problems for which no algorithm exists) and infeasible problems (that is, problems for which only algorithms are known that have an exponential runtime). I like this book (and its splendid title) because of its focus on the limitations of computation. Harel does a marvelous job in explaining two difficult topics about computation. The understanding of any scientific discipline requires the understanding of its limits, and the limits of computation are as significant as they are surprising.

By David Harel,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Computers Ltd. as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Computers are incredible. They are one of the most important inventions of the 20th century, dramatically and irrevocably changing the way we live. That is the good news. The bad news is that there are still major limitations to computers, serious problems that not even the most powerful computers can solve. The consequences of such limitations can be serious. Too often these limits get overlooked, in the quest for bigger, better, and more powerful computers. In Computers Ltd., David Harel, best-selling author of Algorithmics, explains and illustrates one of the most fundamental, yet under-exposed facets of computers - their inherent…

Book cover of The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect

Why did I love this book?

This book describes the culmination of Judea Pearl’s research on causation. For his work, Pearl won the Turing Award, which is widely considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for computer science. The book presents a simple, yet powerful language to talk and reason precisely about causation, a topic scientists and philosophers have studied for centuries. In addition to the well-developed theory and the many well-chosen examples, what I love about this book is that it illustrates that computer science is not just about producing software, but that it can create powerful general theories about the world.

By Judea Pearl, Dana MacKenzie,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Book of Why as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Wonderful ... illuminating and fun to read'
- Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow

'"Pearl's accomplishments over the last 30 years have provided the theoretical basis for progress in artificial intelligence and have redefined the term "thinking machine"'
- Vint Cerf, Chief Internet Evangelist, Google, Inc.

The influential book in how causality revolutionized science and the world, by the pioneer of artificial intelligence

'Correlation does not imply causation.' This mantra was invoked by scientists for decades in order to avoid taking positions as to whether one thing caused another, such as smoking…

Book cover of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Why did I love this book?

The focus of this book is self-reference and recursion. By explaining what formal systems are and how they can be identified in music and art, Hofstadter illustrates how fundamental concepts of computing appear in unexpected areas of our lives. A focus of this book is on the principal limitations of formal systems and thus of computing. Some parts of the book may be hard to digest due to the significant use of formal symbol manipulation, and with 777 pages it is not a quick read. The effort is, however, rewarded with deep insights into Gödel's incompleteness theorem and its implication for computing. This is a brilliant book, a true classic, which contains much food for thought.

By Douglas R. Hofstadter,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked Gödel, Escher, Bach as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Douglas Hofstadter's book is concerned directly with the nature of maps" or links between formal systems. However, according to Hofstadter, the formal system that underlies all mental activity transcends the system that supports it. If life can grow out of the formal chemical substrate of the cell, if consciousness can emerge out of a formal system of firing neurons, then so too will computers attain human intelligence. Goedel, Escher, Bach is a wonderful exploration of fascinating ideas at the heart of cognitive science: meaning, reduction, recursion, and much more.

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