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The FUNdamentals of Algorithms

Al Khwarizmi

The study of algorithms has an ancient pedigree. The study of computers as we know them may date back a hundred years or so. The study of algorithms dates back a millennia or more. In fact the word algorithm is derived from the name of the great Islamic Mathematician, Astronomer, Geographer and all-round polymath, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, who was a member of Dar Al-Hikmah (the House of Knowledge) in Baghdad in the 800s. Algorithms are just precise ways of achieving some task. Follow the algorithm and job is done. It may be a computer following the algorithm but it doesn't have to be. For most of history it has been people doing so. Al-Khwarizmi was interested in algorithms for solving algebraic equations and on calculation using our "modern" Hindu-Arabic positional number system which he introduced to the western world. Back in the 9th century Islam, having ways to do things such as calculating shares in inheritance was an important requirement of the Qur'an. It was vital to be sure you had a way of calculating such things that was guaranteed to get the right answer. That is what the study of algorithms is about, though algorithms can be devised to do much more than simple algebra. Every computer gadget you ever used is following algorithms to do whatever it does.

Find out more about Muslim Science and Al-Khwarizmi's work in this essay by Queen Mary student Zin Elabidin Derfoufi

From Algorithms to...Air Guitar

A Woman playing air guitar

Computer Scientists both invent algorithms and study their properties. Algorithms have been devised to beat humans at games, fly planes, recognize faces, process DNA, send money around the world, crack codes, navigate you home, control your washing machine, detect your movements, write down the words you speak, paint works of art, write jokes, control nuclear power plants ... You name it. Any individual program, in fact, will involve a whole range of algorithms some simple, some complex. What kind of algorithm do you think might have been needed to develop the Virtual Air Guitar?