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The Discrete Charm of the Machine: Why the World Became Digital

Ken Steiglitz
Princeton University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Salim Salem
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With a terrific simplicity and very stylish language, Steiglitz’s book takes us on a tour through the history of the computer and shows us how it was built and progressed from the analog state to the discrete one.

The Discrete Charm of the Machine contains 13 chapters divided into four parts filling 235 pages and surveying the important technological revolution that is still unfolding in our time.

In the introduction, titled “To the reader,” the author explains what this book is about and to whom it is addressed. The first chapter sets the stage and give some of the terminology that will be used. Chapter two discusses all sorts of noises that interfere with signal and how they are treated in analog computers. In the third chapter Steiglitz introduces what he considers the most important idea behind discretization: “Signal standardization.” The physics behind all these ideas is explained in chapter four, where the author takes us in a tour in the realm of physics’ transformation from Newton to Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, and from traditional physics to relativity and to quantic physics. The fifth chapter is about the computer as a microphotograph, discussing how small a processor or a channel could be. This chapter concludes the first part of the book.

The second part opens with an introduction to Nyquist’s sampling principle, chapter six, and ends in a study of Claude Shannon’s 1948 seminal paper, chapter seven. In part III the author looks at the effect of computation on building computers. A history of computational devices from ancient Greek era up to electronic analog computer is the subject of chapter eight, while chapter nine is concerned with Turing’s machine. P and NP problems are discussed in chapter ten and problems faced by computer scientists are exposed in chapter eleven. The last part of the book looks at future where the author chooses two up-to-date topics: the internet and robots.

Steiglitz has written a very scientific book, full of physics and mathematics, but with hardly any equations or formulas. He traces the history of computers and how they’ve developed from ancient Greek period up to now and looks at what may come after. He does it with an expert eye and pen. His easy to read style and nicely written explanations make his book accessible to any person who wants to know how the machine that he is using came to be built. I recommend it to all those who want to know their machines but are afraid of the symbolism and jargon of mathematics, logic and physics.

Salim Salem is Professor of Mathematics at the Saint-Joseph University of Beirut.

The table of contents is not available.