The Times Higher - October 29, 1999
Natural beauty of computer land
This is a book that deserves 15 different sorts of review. If
computers touch your life, then here is a way of entering the
excitement of closing the gap between technology and life, between
computers and nature. If you have any sense of fun, get the book, get
on the internet, download the programs and start to play your way into
exploring the boundaries of science.
That is one review. Another might be one that persuades those
stuffy people who write A-level computing and information technology
syllabuses to read this book and use it to design a syllabus that
would give teenagers a real subject. The Computational Beauty of
Nature provides a wealth of ideas that are relevant, challenging,
stretching, deeply absorbing, and ideal for school treatment. Yet
another review would trigger daydreams of a world we might have been
drawn into had we read this book when we were teenagers. In receptive
hands. this book will inspire degree choices life choices, and a
greater appreciation of computers and nature.
The book's ponderous title belies the decade's work of love that
it is. A substantial selection of core subject areas are covered in 24
chapters that require a modest level of mathematics. If you do not
understand calculus, you are not going to learn it from this hook, but
the summaries provided are useful revision, and not so tedious that
they would put off less numerate readers.
Besides, it is easy enough and quite satisfying to play with the
many versatile programs: the book's website can be explored at
http://mitpress.mit.edu/0262062003.html. Every chapter is
illustrated by programs, from simulating predator-prey systems to
applications of genetic algorithms. The programs can be run directly
and the source code is available for anyone wanting to try their hand
The programs are well documented, both in the book and on the
website. Indeed, the website looks like it will become a lively
centre of activity for the subject, and for pedagogic developments.
Perhaps the best review of the book would see it as popular
science. The Computational Beauty of Nature makes science
accessible to anyone who enjoys, say, the level of Scientific
American. A temptation of popularising science is to sink into
reportage. That is, you watch the lives of scientists, but do not
become a scientist. Fortunately this book is crammed with ideas and
programs that are both flexible and powerful.
It starts with a clear exposition of computability that leads up to
a discussion of Turing and Gödel's ideas on what computers can and
cannot do in principle; the associated program is an interactive Lisp
system that can be used to explore recursion and other concepts in a
general way. You can also draw all sorts of coloured Mandelbrot sets
and watch flocks of birds fly across your screen.
The book takes the view that computing and natural systems ideas
are unified in a pentagram of relations. This philosophy is a bit
wobbly --- I do not mean this as a criticism --- in the sense that it
makes one want to rush in and sort it out. In fact this is its
characteristic strength: the reader is invited to experiment with
ideas, formulas, pictures and programs --- and is left on the edge of
a new personal understanding, or even on the edge of genuine new
The balance is tantalising. A useful glossary, a substantial
bibliography and a good index also mean that the book will make a good
travel guide for the journeys it will inspire.
Harold Thimbleby is