Processing Computer Science

Computers, to my untrained mind, are things to be programmed to achieve useful tasks, such as attempting to run Microsoft software or challenging Russian grandmasters in chess.

I have never fully understood the science behind computer science, even after inflicting several classes on the subject upon myself as an undergraduate. Most of what I learned there was that a kilobyte is really 1024 bytes, not 1000 bytes; computers count in bianary; and that programming C++ is hard.

And what was scientific about that?

Science is a process of research that yields insights into mysteries as yet unexplained and most scientific disciplines do a great job of imparting relevance onto the long dead men (and occasionally women) who committed acts of discovery on their way to tenure. Just ask any high schooler to tell you what they know about gravity and you’ll likely hear that it was discovered by either Galileo or Isaac Newton or maybe Albert Einstein. That this approximation of information can penetrate their Facebook-addled, YouTube-junkie brains is a testament to how hard schools push it.

Now quick, name a computer scientist. Steve Jobs does not count.

I’ve read more than a little bit about computers, their creation and the rapid improvements they’ve achieved in the past half-century and I find myself at a loss on this very question.

The science of these devices seemed to me be a matter of making them speedier, getting them to teraflop faster or float more points or whatever mumbo-jumbo IBM made up to sell more of its heavy iron.

Such was the state of my perception until I encountered “Natural Computing,” due out this May from W.W. Norton. The book, by computer scientist Dennis Shasha and reporter Cathy Lazere does much to demystify what computer scientists do as well as reviewing the current state of research in the field.

It’s the sort of book that’s perfect for a college student thinking about a career in computer science, or trying to understand which academic advisors to pick for his or her thesis.

For the Silicon Valley set, it’s a good way to catch up with what’s new and who is working on it. The topics covered may be a touch too cutting edge for quick commercialization, but it’s the sort of book I’d pick up if I wanted to try and keep pace with someone like Steve Jurvetson.

The book features profiles of 15 computer scientists, the problems each tackles and the progress each has made. Think of it as a modern day version of Vasari’s “The Lives of the Artists.”

The books sections cover adaptive computing, genetic and biologic computing and the merging of physics and computer science and makes for interesting reading.
In fact, the subject matter of the book is so interesting as to mask the sometimes thin reporting which relies on a single source for each section. It might have been interesting or useful to hear from each scientist’s peers, research associates or even detractors. Science does not happen in a vacuum and such panoply of voices can demonstrate the process and procedure of progress.

Of course the subject matter is difficult enough without confusing it with too many other inputs and the authors do a remarkable job of making it not just readable, but also enjoyable. I found myself nodding and understanding exactly what delineates digital programming from analogue programming and the implications of moving from one to the other for certain applications.

Yet if I had read that scientists that had got their start microwaving guitars for Gibson had wired up a piece of Jell-O to run a “Hello World” program, I would have thought it was yet another dumb Google April Fool’s joke. But that’s exactly what Jonathan Mills, a computer scientist at Indiana University, Bloomington, has done. It’s an important first step to modeling real world problems and natural events more simply.

Of greatest interest to those in Silicon Valley may be the section on Jake Loveless, a financial trader who uses “K” and other esoteric computer science such as genetic algorithms to optimize returns for hedge funds. I’ve long wondered what went on inside the black boxes inside the proprietary trading divisions of the financial behemoths that rule Wall Street. Maybe an update is in order describing just how all these systems seemed to simultaneously glitch. One wonders if they were running Windows.