Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe

George Dyson

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe

How did computers take over the world? In late 1945, a small group of brilliant engineers and mathematicians gathered at the newly created Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Their ostensible goal was to build a computer which would be instrumental in the US government's race to create a hydrogen bomb. The mathematicians themselves, however, saw their project as the realization of Alan Turing's theoretical 'universal machine.' In Turing's Cathedral, George Dyson vividly re-creates the intense experimentation, incredible mathematical insight and pure creative genius that led to the dawn of the digital universe, uncovering a wealth of new material to bring a human story of extraordinary men and women and their ideas to life. From the lowliest iPhone app to Google's sprawling metazoan codes, we now live in a world of self-replicating numbers and self-reproducing machines whose origins go back to a 5-kilobyte matrix that still holds clues as to what may lie ahead. 3.5 out of 5 based on 10 reviews
Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe

Omniscore:

Classification Non-fiction
Genre Technology, Science & Nature
Format Hardback
Pages 432
RRP
Date of Publication March 2012
ISBN 978-0713997507
Publisher Allen Lane
 

How did computers take over the world? In late 1945, a small group of brilliant engineers and mathematicians gathered at the newly created Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Their ostensible goal was to build a computer which would be instrumental in the US government's race to create a hydrogen bomb. The mathematicians themselves, however, saw their project as the realization of Alan Turing's theoretical 'universal machine.' In Turing's Cathedral, George Dyson vividly re-creates the intense experimentation, incredible mathematical insight and pure creative genius that led to the dawn of the digital universe, uncovering a wealth of new material to bring a human story of extraordinary men and women and their ideas to life. From the lowliest iPhone app to Google's sprawling metazoan codes, we now live in a world of self-replicating numbers and self-reproducing machines whose origins go back to a 5-kilobyte matrix that still holds clues as to what may lie ahead.

Reviews

The Economist

The Economist

This is a technical, philosophical and sometimes personal account: as a boy Mr Dyson encountered many of the protagonists of his story while visiting his father at the IAS. The chronology of “Turing’s Cathedral” is confusing at times, and Mr Dyson sometimes gets sidetracked by minor details: Kurt Gödel’s visa problems, for example, or the construction and layout of IAS buildings. But there are fascinating detours into the histories of science and mathematics, the origins of weather forecasting, the development of nuclear weapons and the earliest work on artificial life. This wide-ranging and lyrical work is an important addition to the literature of the history of computing.

10/03/2012

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The Guardian

Francis Spufford

At first sight — and it's a long first sight, lasting a good 200 of the book's 340 brilliant and frustrating pages of text — Turing's Cathedral appears to be a project for which George Dyson has failed to find a form … Is it worth persisting? Absolutely. Let me give you, appropriately enough, three reasons why ... One: no other book about the beginnings of the digital age brings to life anything like so vividly or appreciatively the immense engineering difficulty of creating electronic logic for the first time ... Two: no other book has engaged so intelligently and disconcertingly with the digital age's relationship to nuclear weapons research ... Three: no other book — this is where we get visionary — makes the connections this one does between the lessons of the computer's origin and the possible paths of its future.

10/03/2012

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The Independent

Peter Forbes

Turing's Cathedral is a wise and meticulously researched account of a vital period in our technological history, peopled by remarkable characters painted in the round.

24/02/2012

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The Literary Review

John Gribbin

If you want to be mentally prepared for the next revolution in computing, Dyson’s book is a must read. But it is also a must read if you just want a ripping yarn about the way real scientists (at least, some real scientists) work and think.

01/04/2012

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The Spectator

Peter Blegvad

This review can't be summarised in a quote; find out why by clicking here.

14/04/2012

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The Daily Telegraph

Manjit Kumar

The years of research and writing have enabled him to bring to life a myriad cast of extraordinary characters ... Faced with the tricky task of balancing technical details with keeping the narrative accessible for the non-computer buff, Dyson ends up probably not giving enough detail to satisfy the aficionado but too much for the lay reader.

23/03/2012

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The Times

Hannah Devlin

It is rich in historical insight into how each new possibility provided impetus for making computers better — for instance, the desire to predict the weather. More disappointing is Dyson’s treatment of the theory of computers, and the book glosses over concepts such as Gödel’s theorem, Turing machines and Monte Carlo methods far too hastily to impart a real sense of understanding. For the lay reader, repeated references to only vaguely explained ideas may prove frustrating. Another gripe is that despite the book’s title, Alan Turing, Max Newman and other British computer scientists are given a relatively thin share of the credit.

20/02/2012

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The Sunday Times

Josh Glancy

Although those unfamiliar with the basic language of mathematics and programming will find the book hard going, Dyson nonetheless provides an entertaining starting point for anyone wanting to understand how Turing’s astonishing ideas became a reality, and how they continue to shape the world we live in today.

22/04/2012

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Times Higher Education

Harold Thimbleby

The story begins in a shed near the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where [Dyson's] parents worked and where he played as a child. For him, the shed sparks memories of the earliest computers. It's best to imagine going into this shed, settling into a comfortable chair and asking George to tell us his story, for it is fascinating — and rambling.

19/04/2012

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The Observer

Evgeny Morozov

While Dyson doesn't shy away from discussing obscure technical and theoretical aspects of Von Neumann's computer, he also provides ample social and cultural context … Alas, the book is not perfect. Dyson, who spent a decade writing and researching it, bombards the reader with a mind-boggling stream of distracting information that adds little to his tale ... Dyson's efforts to connect Von Neumann's cold war computing to today's Silicon Valley result in a slew of untenable generalisations ... Despite these shortcomings, Turing's Cathedral is an engrossing and well-researched book that recounts an important chapter in the convoluted history of 20th-century computing.

25/03/2012

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