Rating: 4/5

Book cover

Daniel Hillis, The Pattern on the Stone: The Simple Ideas that Make Computers Work (New York: Basic Books, 1998).

Have you ever wondered how a computer actually works? How is it that a wafer of silicon no wider than your thumbnail can do all the things that computers do? How can a device that at it’s most essential only understands the numbers 0 and 1 and the operations AND, OR, and NOT run your phone or send an email? Can a computer really be built out of tinker toys, hydraulic pumps, or subatomic particles? These are the sorts of questions Hillis attempts to answer in his book The Pattern on the Stone.

Hillis does an excellent job of providing a brief (160 pages), only mildly technical (no computer science degree needed), yet crystal clear picture of what a computer actually is, how its components work, and how levels of abstraction allow this seemingly simple device to accomplish the myriad of tasks computers perform for us today. The first two chapters are the most technical and discuss Boolean logic and the exact nature of a “bit.” He then takes you up the ladder of abstraction to explain programming languages, algorithms, parallel computing, and finally some principles of artificial intelligence.

If you’ve ever wondered what a computer fundamentally is, then the few hours it will take to read this book are worthwhile.  It’s brevity does not interfere with its clarity when it comes to a basic understanding of how it all works.