A popular science reading list for students of Computer Science

Dr. Mark Lee, School of Computer Science
University of Birmingham


If you're a student of Computer Science then you should find the following books fascinating, insightful and most importantly, fun to read. If you're lucky enough to reach the summer holidays without any resits then you could do far worse than picking one (or several) to read along side whatever else you're reading (please don't say Harry Potter!).

I've tried to pick books which interested/motivated me as a student. The list is obviously incomplete and unfortunately some of the best books I read are now out of print. However, the main library has copies of all the books listed below. I'll be adding to this list when 1) I have time 2) when I finish another book which is worth including (I'm still a student myself).

If you've read a book which you think should be listed then please email me - I'd be very happy to hear from you.

Computer Science

David Harel Algorithmics: The Spirit of Computing (1987) Addison Wesley
I'd recommend this book as a "first book about Computer Science". It's an excellent introduction to what algorithms are and a first taster on topics such as complexity, Turing machines, and decideability. Harel is a fantastic writer and is able to describe these concepts without virtually any mathematics. Therefore, anybody should be able to gain something from this book and it's an excellent read if you are considering studying Computer Science.

Unfortunately this book appears not to be in print but you can buy it second hand from Amazon and there's one copy in the Main Library (classmark QA 76.55/H). Large city libraries might also have a copy.

Douglas R. Hofstadter Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (1979) Penguin
This book is a classic and is probably required reading for any Computer Scientist. Hofstadter weaves a conceptual rug which combines the mathematical and philosophical insights of Kurt Godel with the paradoxical etchings of Escher and the music of J.S. Bach to communicate a deep and intricate view of what constitutes computer science. Some students might be put off by the book's size - it's a fairly dense 800 page work but Hofstadter is a very funny and charming writer. I'd recommend this book as a reading challange for any student over the summer holidays.

This book should be available in any large bookshop and there are lots of cheap second hand copies on Amazon. Apparently the 1994 edition is better than the latest 2000 edition in terms of print quality. The Main Library has quite a few copies (class mark BC 135/H)

Raymond M. Smullyan
What Is the Name of This Book?: The Riddle of Dracula and Other Logical Puzzles (1978)
The Lady or the Tiger?: And Other Logic Puzzles (1988)
To Mock a Mockingbird: And Other Logic Puzzles (2000) (All published by Penguin)

Raymond M. Smullyan is an American logician who has published 15 or so popular science logic books. I've only read the above but found them to be consistantly excellent. Each book consists of puzzles followed by discussion and Smullyan is brilliant at teaching difficult logic concepts using puzzles which gradually require more and more cunning.

You can find quite a few of his books in the main library under the classmarks QA 9 & B3436.

Artificial Intelligence

Douglas R. Hofstadter & Daniel C. Dennett (editors)
The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self & Soul (1985) Penguin

This is a collection of classic papers on Artificial Intelligence, Philosophy, Cognitive Science plus discussions and thought experiments suggested by Hofstadter and Dennett. It's an excellent collection and includes classic papers by Alan Turing and John Searle. There's also various papers and thought experiments included which wouldn't look out of place in the weirdest science fiction. After completing the first year of my degree, I was given this to read over summer in preparation for a second year module on philosophy - it almost made me look forward to the end of the holidays.

There are a lot of very cheap second hand copies of this book on Amazon and our Main Library has a copy at B 839.5/H


William Poundstone Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles and the Frailty of Knowledge (1991) Penguin
In 288 pages, Poundstone covers famous puzzles and paradoxs concerning logic, language and knowledge. This is a fascinating book which provides a very fast tour of most of the classical examples of paradox including Hempel's ravens, Zeno's paradoxes of motion etc. In some ways, this is a disadvantage because the book tries to cover so many very different problems but it's an excellent first taste of a difficult and intriguing topic.

The Main Library has just one copy of this book - it's at BC 177.

(Last updated 12th March 2008 by mgl)