Brown Dogs and Barbers – What’s Computer Science All About?

Karl Beecher

Published by






Reviewed by

Roger Davies


9 out of 10

What’s computer science all about? Most people are able to give specific examples of things to do with computing - networks, bits and binary, Boolean logic, programming and so forth. But if, like me, you have no formal education in computer science it’s difficult to begin to appreciate the discipline as a whole and how the different things fit together. As a teacher in CAS (the Computing At School working group) I am not alone.

Many others, stepping up to the challenge of teaching a new National Curriculum in Computing, will be in a similar position. So too, I suspect, are many IT professionals who have gravitated towards computing careers from diverse technical or educational backgrounds. Unfortunately subject specifications in schools and job specialisation in industry tend to break the discipline down, fragmenting rather than uniting it.

If you want to grasp the deep concepts underlying computer science, what’s needed is a book that seeks to weave a unifying thread through seemingly disparate themes.

Welcome to Karl Beecher’s world of Brown Dogs and Barbers. This book could not have come at a better time, nor be better pitched. Aimed squarely at the intelligent layperson, it requires no prior expertise and sits within the genre of popular science.

IT professionals, teachers, parents and their teenage children will all find it an invaluable introduction to the key concepts and their practical application. It tells the story of how a new discipline, a new science was born. Arranged in six sections, each with chapters rarely more than five pages long, it is a book to engage even reluctant readers.

You can’t understand where technology is going unless you appreciate where it came from. The author recalls the sometimes humorous history of computers in an easy, engaging style. He traces the pursuit of solutions to at times seemingly impossible problems. Most important though, the technical advances are kept firmly in their place.

The book is not really about technology at all - it’s about the ideas and problems thrown up by its explosive development. As Beecher eloquently shows, computer science was forged in the crucible of maths rather than physics. Chapter 1 will have you reasoning about the problem of computing a square root. By chapter 2 you’ll be pondering the semantics and logic of the Liar Paradox.

Brown Dogs and Barbers puts the cerebral challenges at the heart of the story of subsequent developments. That breathtaking progress is succinctly recounted in 250 pages. It’s a tale of increasing scale, complexity and ubiquity. Along the way, there are bridges in Königsberg to cross, philosophers invited to dinner, traffic control problems to solve, jobs to schedule and message thieves to thwart.

By the end of the book you not only have a real feel for the scope of the discipline, but also a thorough grounding in the ideas that make our gadgets and networks tick. Moreover, contrary to popular belief, you’ll appreciate why computers will never be able to do everything. If you have no background in computer science, this book will be a revelation. And if you think you know what computer science is about, this book will invoke connections you may never have considered before.

Further information: Self published

January 2015