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.

The books I picked & why

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

By Donald A. Norman, Tamara Dunaeff,

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

Why 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. 


How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

By Jordan Ellenberg,

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

Why 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. 


Computers Ltd.: What They Really Can't Do

By David Harel,

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

Why 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.


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

By Judea Pearl, Dana MacKenzie,

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

Why 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.


Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

By Douglas R. Hofstadter,

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

Why 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.


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