When Assistant Professor of Computer Science John MacCormick first spoke with a publisher about his recent book, they told him that under no circumstances should he include the word “algorithms” in the title. Just two years later, they sang another tune.
“Suddenly, there’s a huge interest in learning what algorithms are, and what they can do,” said MacCormick during an April 4 FaculTea lecture on the book, Nine Algorithms That changed the Future: The Ingenious Ideas That Drive Today’s Computers. Recent searches in The New York Times,he noted, reveal dozens of related articles each month, and the word even showed up in an English-department colleague’s Facebook post this week. “We live in a seething mass of algorithms. They’re all around us.” [Story continues below.]
MacCormick’s book helps nonmathematicians make sense of these problem-solving recipes, which existed long before the age of computers—the formula we use to add a list of long numbers, compelling us to “carry the one,” is one low-tech example. But, he noted, everyday uses of algorithms have exploded as the general public increasingly uses computing devices to enact Web searches, upload photos, compress and decompress files, send information securely through digital signatures, tap into databases and more.
Speaking of why the ordinary computer user should want to learn the math behind the magic, MacCormick compared the mysteries of algorithms to the mysteries of the night sky. “I know nothing about astronomy, but when I look up at the stars, I feel a sense of wonder and awe,” he said, adding that with a little education, his appreciation would increase exponentially. “In the same way, if you learn about algorithms, you’ll feel [an increased] sense of wonder each time you use a smartphone or iPad or laptop or desktop computer.”
Held in the Waidner-Spahr’s Biblio Café, MacCormick’s FaculTea lecture was part of a series promoting learning and collaboration across disciplines by allowing faculty to share their research in an informal, social setting.
By MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
Photos by Carl Socolow ’77
Read about past FaculTeas:
B. Ashton Nichols: Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism
Tulio Pagano: Landscape as Memory
Amy Farrell: Fat Shame
Teresa Barber: Committing to Memory
Wendy Moffat: A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster
View MacCormick's brief video about his book: