Charles Petzold on writing books, reading books, and exercising the internal UTM

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My New Book on Charles Babbage

March 20, 2008
New York, N.Y.

Today is the first day of spring, a traditional time for new beginnings. Instead of doing something useful like planting a tree, I am today officially beginning the writing of a new book. That means that I am creating a new Microsoft Word document and typing at least the magic words “Chapter 1.”

The new book is tentatively entitled:

The Mathematics of Miracles
Charles Babbage and the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise

The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise is a short work of natural theology published in 1837 by nineteenth-century mathematician and computer pioneer Charles Babbage. I intend for my book to cover the historical, theological, and philosophical background of Babbage’s little book, as well as provide an analysis of Babbage’s use of probability mathematics.

The Mathematics of Miracles actually began life in my mind a couple years ago as an essay similar to “Maxwell, Molecules, and Evolution”. The advancement of the conception to book length was recently prompted by some reading connected with the Humean critique of miracles. Although I’ve been doing some scattered research for The Mathematics of Miracles for about a year, the actual writing has only begun today.

Obviously such a book has, let’s say, a limited commercial appeal. At best I’d be able to interest a university press in the project, but that might require years (literally).

For that reason, I intend to avoid all that unpleasantness by posting the book online on The Mathematics of Miracles page of my web site.

But wait! There’s more:

I also intend to post all my rough drafts online on a daily basis. Every day that I work on the book, I intend to add the Word file that resulted from that day’s labor to the collection already on The Mathematics of Miracles page. In other words, you don’t have to wait for me to finish the book. You can begin reading it immediately!

Of course, all this is an intention rather than a promise. It’s possible that I’ll lose interest in the book, or that I’ll discover that it’s yet another book beyond my capabilities. It's possible that another project will come along and I'll have to put this aside for awhile. It’s even possible that an actual publisher will email me saying “We want to publish your book! Stop posting it online!”

But for now, I’ve begun and I’m excited. Wish me luck!


I LOVE the concept of posting drafts as you progress. Though I hope a publisher would take interest and reward your efforts.

It forced me to then think about what an open source project for authorship would look like. Where users could check in/out drafts, for instance.

Then I realized, it would just read like a really long Wikipedia article with a low level of consistency.

"This Chapter is currently closed. Please consult the discussion page."


— Ian Hughes, Thu, 20 Mar 2008 16:08:43 -0400 (EDT)

Awesome idea. It doesn't sound quite as interesting as the turing book you're finishing up, I already pre-ordered, but still has potential.. Have you considered posting it in some other form than MS Word docs? PDF? google docs? plain txt files?

jcopenha, Thu, 20 Mar 2008 16:23:19 -0400 (EDT)

PDF is a little too fancy for rough drafts, and plain text isn't quite adequate. (Eventually the book will have a bit of mathematics.) I gave the matter a bit of thought and chose the Microsoft Word format because that's precisely what I'm using. The file you open from the web site is precisely the file I closed earlier this afternoon and which I'll re-open tomorrow. — Charles

Good luck!!!

I'll be waiting for this book (in paper), too...

Fabio Galuppo, Thu, 20 Mar 2008 21:30:55 -0400 (EDT)

Good luck with your new project.

I have pre-ordered the Turing book from Amazon. Can't wait to get my hands on it.

Pradeep Chellappan, Fri, 21 Mar 2008 02:37:07 -0400 (EDT)

It would great to have an RSS feed to alert people when there is a new version to look at?

Matt Doar, Fri, 21 Mar 2008 14:34:21 -0400 (EDT)

good luck! also looking forward to the Turing book.

— roublen, Fri, 21 Mar 2008 15:53:21 -0400 (EDT)

I wish you good luck Charles

I have been a silent admirer of your work and the concept you have comeout with is really exciting.

-, Sun, 23 Mar 2008 15:32:24 -0400 (EDT)

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