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The Making of a New Science

Giorgio Ausiello
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
David S. Mazel
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It’s a curious thing for a scientist, engineer, or any person of accomplishment to write a memoir of his life. Think about it for a moment. Imagine you are in your eighth decade of life and you have been an active researcher for, say, 50+ years. You are looking back on your life, remembering your early career, the conferences you attended, the people you met, and the life you led. What should do you do now? How do you convey your sense of wonder and excitement to others who are on their journey of knowledge and seeking their way in science? 
If you said, “Write a book!” then you and Giorgio Ausiello have much in common. And good for you because if you do write such a book, you would do well to read Ausiello’s The Making of a New Science. His book is a good example of how you might proceed.  Ausiello has written an intriguing and thorough guide to his professional life with a few personal tidbits thrown in. He not only tells us about his life but he paints with a tapestry of colors showing us how computer science in Europe evolved from a mere thought to a complete science. 
We begin in 1955 with the FINIC (Ferranti Istituto Nazionale per le Applicazioni del Calcolo (INIC)), at which our author programmed the FINAC machine. He mentions that he was a physics student at the time. It’s interesting that this machine produced a sound while it was running, a sort of audio sense of your program. If you heard a monotone continuous tone, well, your program may have been stuck in an infinite loop. I wonder how many of us could benefit today with an audio sense of our code.
Ausiello tells us about code development especially the \(\lambda\)-calculus and how language grammars played a role in the development of programming languages. I think most people would be surprised to read how language structures affected programming languages. But if you think about it, that makes sense. Coding is a translation of our wants to a computer. We express those wants in a language for a computer to decipher and execute. Grammar and structure are necessarily a part in how a machine can interpret our desires. Before reading this book I hadn’t given that any thought, I just learned how to use a language to express loops, constants, conditionals, etc. To think of computer programming after reading this book is to view it in a more measured sense with a bit more insight into what a language must do. 
We learn about recursive functions, LISP programming, a little about COBOL, and naturally we have a chance to read about P and NP problems. The discussions do not focus so much on what the problems are so if you are looking for a primer to these ideas you’ll be disappointed. However, if you want to know who was working on these problems (particularly in Europe) and how these ideas interlaced with other concepts you’ll find that here in great detail.  There is a discussion about data structures, something that I don’t know much about. Still, it’s wonderful to hear how computer scientists developed these structures, how they used them, and who was central to their development. 
The author spends a great deal of space talking about the people who did the work and where he met them and his interactions with them. Frankly, I didn’t recognize the names, perhaps because I am an engineer, or maybe because most are Europeans and I haven’t had that exposure. Still, to see the plethora of people who have contributed to the field is to see the breadth of thought and work to get us to the computer science today.
There’s one more thing this book does that is of great importance, though I did not see Ausiello make this point directly. In all his discussions of the conferences he attended, his various appointments at different research centers, and his interactions with other researchers, he indirectly tells us what it takes to be a successful scientist. This is priceless. Thinking again to what you might want to tell others when at the twilight of your career I can think of nothing more important than to encourage others to do what Ausiello did and chronicles. Go to conferences, study new and developing fields, conduct research, write papers, and have a full and active career. We hear his advice by example in his book and it’s worth your time to read about it as well.


David S. Mazel is a practicing engineer in Washington, DC. He welcomes your thoughts and feedback. He can be reached at mazeld at gmail dot com.

See the table of contents in the publisher's webpage.