Book review: The Universal Computer

I saw this title on a tweet by an Italian friend a couple of months ago, and I decided to add it to my queue of books-to-read, thanks to various positive reviews that are available online:

Martin Davis, The Universal Computer: The road from Leibniz to Turing.
Published by W. W. Norton & Co., 2000. 270 pages

I have now finished it and I can  say that this is not a good book: this is an extraordinary book about the history of computer science, and it should be compulsory reading in any CS curriculum.

The book provides an overview of a number of key figures in the history of mathematics and computer science: Leibniz, Boole, Frege, Cantor, Hilbert, Godel and Turing, with two final chapters on “hardware” history and directions for the future. What makes the book unique is that the presentation of the various philosophers and mathematicians is as captivating as the best novel you have ever read: it is just not possible to stop reading it. In fact, I am currently late with a couple of reviews that I planned to complete on a Eurostar trip because I had to finish this book.

The presentation is self-contained, no background knowledge is required to understand the various chapters (neither of philosophy nor of mathematics  / computer science). The description of the proofs of incompleteness for PA and undecidability for FOL are probably the most accessible I have ever seen (don’t forget to have a look at all the notes at the end of the book: they are as clear and as important as the main body of the book).

It is true that the book does not give an in-depth analysis of the various philosophers. It is true that some figures are missing (e.g., no mention of Tarski in “Beyond Leibniz’s Dream”). It is also true that the approach is a bit Manichean in some points (and in some cases my personal opinions are probably on the “wrong” side). Nevertheless, I think this book is fundamental to understand our position in history, what we do, and why we do it.

Overall, I think this book should be at the top of your reading list, right next to ZAMM.

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