The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible

The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible

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by Lance Fortnow
     
 

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The P-NP problem is the most important open problem in computer science, if not all of mathematics. The Golden Ticket provides a nontechnical introduction to P-NP, its rich history, and its algorithmic implications for everything we do with computers and beyond. In this informative and entertaining book, Lance Fortnow traces how the problem arose during the

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Overview

The P-NP problem is the most important open problem in computer science, if not all of mathematics. The Golden Ticket provides a nontechnical introduction to P-NP, its rich history, and its algorithmic implications for everything we do with computers and beyond. In this informative and entertaining book, Lance Fortnow traces how the problem arose during the Cold War on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and gives examples of the problem from a variety of disciplines, including economics, physics, and biology. He explores problems that capture the full difficulty of the P-NP dilemma, from discovering the shortest route through all the rides at Disney World to finding large groups of friends on Facebook. But difficulty also has its advantages. Hard problems allow us to safely conduct electronic commerce and maintain privacy in our online lives.

The Golden Ticket explores what we truly can and cannot achieve computationally, describing the benefits and unexpected challenges of the P-NP problem.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This awkward but eager work introduces readers to one of the most complicated problems in mathematics. P-type problems have a single solution and can be solved easily by computer, whereas NP, or “nondeterministic polynomial” problems, involve finding the relative “best” of numerous possible answers. NP problems include map-coloring puzzles, traveling-salesman puzzles (which seek to find the best combinations of routes between locations), and clique problems, like finding the largest group of people on Facebook who are all friends of each other. Fortnow’s “Golden Ticket” would be proof that P=NP, the discovery of efficient ways to solve NP-type problems. Whoever solves this decidedly nontrivial problem—one of the Clay Institute for Mathematics’ six unsolved “Millennium Problems”—will receive a million prize. In addition to exploring the actual quandary, Fortnow, chair of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s school of computer science, lays out a quick modern history of mathematical problem solving, and enthuses over the possibilities of a “beautiful world” where P=NP: the ability to quickly sequence DNA, cure cancer and AIDs, and predict the weather. Despite moments of notational confusion—what exactly do “P H NP,” “P W NP,” and “P M NP” mean?—Fortnow effectively initiates readers into the seductive mystery and importance of P and NP problems. 41 halftones, 41 line illus. (Apr.)
Booklist - Bryce Christensen
[This] as-yet-unsolved problem—identified by mathematicians as the P-NP problem—raises fundamental questions about just how far society can ride the technological wave triggered by the computer revolution. Fortnow unfolds a fascinating dual-track story of how this problem first emerged, Western researchers encountering it while trying to maximize computer efficiency, Russian analysts confronting it while puzzling over the persistent need for perebor ('brute force search'). Readers watch as the P-NP problem attracts investigators in cryptography, biology, quantum physics, and social networking—and frustrates them all. Fortnow allows nonspecialist readers to glimpse the conceptual difficulties here (try 'nondeterministic polynomial time,' for example). But he mercifully frames his discussion largely in nontechnical terms. Even readers averse to mathematics will share in the intellectual stimulation of pondering a riddle compelling us to ask what we should hope for—and fear—in replacing human brains with computer algorithms. A provocative reminder of the real-world consequences of a theoretical enigma.
New Yorker - Alexander Nazaryan
As Lance Fortnow describes in his new book, The Golden Ticket: P, NP and the Search for the Impossible, P versus NP is 'one of the great open problems in all of mathematics' not only because it is extremely difficult to solve but because it has such obvious practical applications. It is the dream of total ease, of the confidence that there is an efficient way to calculate nearly everything, 'from cures to deadly diseases to the nature of the universe,' even 'an algorithmic process to recognize greatness.'. . . To postulate that P ≠ NP, as Fortnow does, is to allow for a world of mystery, difficulty, and frustration—but also of discovery and inquiry, of pleasures pleasingly delayed.
New Scientist - Jacob Aron
The definition of this problem is tricky and technical, but in The Golden Ticket, Lance Fortnow cleverly sidesteps the issue with a boiled-down version. P is the collection of problems we can solve quickly, NP is the collection of problems we would like to solve. If P = NP, computers can answer all the questions we pose and our world is changed forever. It is an oversimplification, but Fortnow, a computer scientist at Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, knows his stuff and aptly illustrates why NP problems are so important.
Commercial Dispatch - Rob Hardy
Fortnow's book does a fine job of showing why the tantalizing question is an important one, with implications far beyond just computer science.
Shtetl-Optimized blog - Scott Aaronson
A great book. . . . [Lance Fortnow] has written precisely the book about P vs. NP that the interested layperson or IT professional wants and needs.
Michael Trick's Operations Research Blog - Michael Trick
[The Golden Ticket] is a book on a technical subject aimed at a general audience. . . . Lance's mix of technical accuracy with evocative story telling works.
Daniel Lemire's Blog
Thoroughly researched and reviewed. Anyone from a smart high school student to a computer scientist is sure to get a lot of this book. The presentation is beautiful. There are few formulas but lots of facts.
From the Publisher
One of Amazon.com's 2013 Best Science Books

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2013

Honorable Mention for the 2013 PROSE Award in Popular Science & Mathematics, Association of American Publishers

"As Lance Fortnow describes in his new book, The Golden Ticket: P, NP and the Search for the Impossible, P versus NP is 'one of the great open problems in all of mathematics' not only because it is extremely difficult to solve but because it has such obvious practical applications. It is the dream of total ease, of the confidence that there is an efficient way to calculate nearly everything, 'from cures to deadly diseases to the nature of the universe,' even 'an algorithmic process to recognize greatness.'. . . To postulate that P ≠ NP, as Fortnow does, is to allow for a world of mystery, difficulty, and frustration—but also of discovery and inquiry, of pleasures pleasingly delayed."—Alexander Nazaryan, New Yorker

"Fortnow effectively initiates readers into the seductive mystery and importance of P and NP problems."Publishers Weekly

"Fortnow's book is just the ticket for bringing one of the major theoretical problems of our time to the level of the average citizen—and yes, that includes elected officials."—Veit Elser, Science

"Without bringing formulas or computer code into the narrative, Fortnow sketches the history of this class of questions, convincingly demonstrates their surprising equivalence, and reveals some of the most far-reaching implications that a proof of P = NP would bring about. These might include tremendous advances in biotechnology (for instance, more cures for cancer), information technology, and even the arts. Verdict: Through story and analogy, this relatively slim volume manages to provide a thorough, accessible explanation of a deep mathematical question and its myriad consequences. An engaging, informative read for a broad audience."—J.J.S. Boyce, Library Journal

"[This] as-yet-unsolved problem—identified by mathematicians as the P-NP problem—raises fundamental questions about just how far society can ride the technological wave triggered by the computer revolution. Fortnow unfolds a fascinating dual-track story of how this problem first emerged, Western researchers encountering it while trying to maximize computer efficiency, Russian analysts confronting it while puzzling over the persistent need for perebor ('brute force search'). Readers watch as the P-NP problem attracts investigators in cryptography, biology, quantum physics, and social networking—and frustrates them all. Fortnow allows nonspecialist readers to glimpse the conceptual difficulties here (try 'nondeterministic polynomial time,' for example). But he mercifully frames his discussion largely in nontechnical terms. Even readers averse to mathematics will share in the intellectual stimulation of pondering a riddle compelling us to ask what we should hope for—and fear—in replacing human brains with computer algorithms. A provocative reminder of the real-world consequences of a theoretical enigma."—Bryce Christensen, Booklist

"The definition of this problem is tricky and technical, but in The Golden Ticket, Lance Fortnow cleverly sidesteps the issue with a boiled-down version. P is the collection of problems we can solve quickly, NP is the collection of problems we would like to solve. If P = NP, computers can answer all the questions we pose and our world is changed forever. It is an oversimplification, but Fortnow, a computer scientist at Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, knows his stuff and aptly illustrates why NP problems are so important."—Jacob Aron, New Scientist

"Fortnow's book does a fine job of showing why the tantalizing question is an important one, with implications far beyond just computer science."—Rob Hardy, Commercial Dispatch

"A great book. . . . [Lance Fortnow] has written precisely the book about P vs. NP that the interested layperson or IT professional wants and needs."—Scott Aaronson, Shtetl-Optimized blog

"[The Golden Ticket] is a book on a technical subject aimed at a general audience. . . . Lance's mix of technical accuracy with evocative story telling works."—Michael Trick, Michael Trick's Operations Research Blog

"Thoroughly researched and reviewed. Anyone from a smart high school student to a computer scientist is sure to get a lot of this book. The presentation is beautiful. There are few formulas but lots of facts."Daniel Lemire's Blog

"An entertaining discussion of the P versus NP problem."—Andrew Binstock, Dr. Dobb's

"The Golden Ticket is an extremely accessible and enjoyable treatment of the most important question of theoretical computer science, namely whether P is equal to NP. . . . [I]t is a very pleasant read for those specializing in discrete mathematics, and understandable to anyone with an undergraduate knowledge of mathematics."Choice

"The book is accessible and useful for practically anyone from smart high school students to specialists. . . . [P]erhaps the interest sparked by this book will be the 'Golden Ticket' for further accessible work in this area. And perhaps P=NP will start to become as famous as E=mc2."—Michael Trick, INFORMS Journal of Computing

"In any case, it is excellent to have a nontechnical book about the P versus NP question. The Golden Ticket offers an inspiring introduction for nontechnical readers to what is surely the most important open problem in computer science."—Leslie Ann Goldberg, LMS Newsletter

"The Golden Ticket does a good job of explaining a complex concept in terms that a secondary-school student will understand—a hard problem in its own right, even if not quite NP."Physics World

"The whole book is fun to read and can be fully appreciated without any knowledge in (theoretical) computer science. Fortnow's efforts to make the difficult material accessible to non-experts should be commended. . . . The book thus caters to all audiences: from novices with an interest in computational problems to experts with knowledge in theoretical computer science."—Andreas Maletti, Zentralblatt MATH

"This is a fabulous book for both educators and students at the secondary school level and above. It does not require any particular mathematical knowledge but, rather, the ability to think. Enjoy the world of abstract ideas as you experience an intriguing journey through mathematical thinking."—Gail Kaplan, Mathematics Teacher

Library Journal
In his first book-length foray into popular science, Fortnow (computer science, Georgia Inst. of Technology) tackles one of the biggest open problems in mathematics. P vs. NP can be succinctly phrased as the issue of whether some of the hardest and most important questions in mathematics have easily computable solutions. The questions themselves can range from how best to match up organ donors and recipients to how one can use the smallest number of different colors when creating a map. Without bringing formulas or computer code into the narrative, Fortnow sketches the history of this class of questions, convincingly demonstrates their surprising equivalence, and reveals some of the most far-reaching implications that a proof of P = NP would bring about. These might include tremendous advances in biotechnology (for instance, more cures for cancer), information technology, and even the arts. VERDICT Through story and analogy, this relatively slim volume manages to provide a thorough, accessible explanation of a deep mathematical question and its myriad consequences. An engaging, informative read for a broad audience.—J.J.S. Boyce, Manitoba Métis Federation

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781400846610
Publisher:
Princeton University Press
Publication date:
03/27/2013
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
192
Sales rank:
766,864
File size:
6 MB

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