You are here

Algorithms Unlocked

Thomas H. Cormen
MIT Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Allen Stenger
, on

This is a very clearly-written, brief introduction to computer algorithms. Each algorithm is introduced with a detailed concrete example, followed by a careful statement of the algorithm. Despite its marketing, the book is not a guide for the general reader (it is too technical and jargon-laden) nor does it have much about how algorithms touch everyday life.

The big difference between this book and a text such as Cormen & Leiserson & Rivest & Stein’s Introduction to Algorithms (3rd edition, 2009, MIT Press) is that texts devote much more space to analyzing algorithm performance. This book broadens the audience by omitting most of this material, and usually just asserting the asymptotic behavior rather than deriving it. This reduces greatly the amount of mathematics needed. The intellectual rigor is no less than a textbook, but many topics are omitted. The book also has no exercises.

The book’s strength is in its step-by-step explanations of how the algorithms work. It includes a few applications, such as the GPS and secure credit card transaction applications promised on the back cover blurb, along with fax machines (compression), package delivery scheduling (shortest-path algorithms), and PERT charts (topological sort). All the treatment of applications is skimpy and seems tacked-on to a traditional abstract discussion of algorithms. In fact, the terms GPS and secure transaction are not even listed in the index. The GPS discussion only covers shortest-path algorithms, while omitting the equally-important algorithms for determining the current position. The secure transaction discussion only covers public key cryptography and not certificates or session keys.

Bottom line: A clearly-written book with many good features, but a book in search of an audience.

Allen Stenger is a math hobbyist and retired software developer. He is webmaster and newsletter editor for the MAA Southwestern Section and is an editor of the Missouri Journal of Mathematical Sciences. His mathematical interests are number theory and classical analysis. He volunteers in his spare time at, a math help site that fosters inquiry learning.