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Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe [Kindle Edition]

George Dyson
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (109 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $16.95
Kindle Price: $9.70
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Sold by: Random House LLC

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Book Description

“It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence,” twenty-four-year-old Alan Turing announced in 1936. In Turing’s Cathedral, George Dyson focuses on a small group of men and women, led by John von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who built one of the first computers to realize Alan Turing’s vision of a Universal Machine. Their work would break the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things—and our universe would never be the same.
 
Using five kilobytes of memory (the amount allocated to displaying the cursor on a computer desktop of today), they achieved unprecedented success in both weather prediction and nuclear weapons design, while tackling, in their spare time, problems ranging from the evolution of viruses to the evolution of stars.
 
Dyson’s account, both historic and prophetic, sheds important new light on how the digital universe exploded in the aftermath of World War II. The proliferation of both codes and machines was paralleled by two historic developments: the decoding of self-replicating sequences in biology and the invention of the hydrogen bomb. It’s no coincidence that the most destructive and the most constructive of human inventions appeared at exactly the same time.
 
How did code take over the world? In retracing how Alan Turing’s one-dimensional model became John von Neumann’s two-dimensional implementation, Turing’s Cathedral offers a series of provocative suggestions as to where the digital universe, now fully three-dimensional, may be heading next.



Editorial Reviews

Review

A wise and meticulously researched account of a vital period in our technological history, peopled by remarkable characters painted in the round -- Peter Forbes Independent Fascinating ... the story Dyson tells is intensely human, a tale of teamwork over many years and all the harmonies and rows that involves -- Jenny Uglow This wide-ranging and lyrical work is an important addition to the literature of the history of computing Economist A beautiful example of technological storytelling ... much more than a chronicle of engineering progress: it includes fascinating digressions into the history and physics of nuclear weapons, the fundamentals of mathematical logic, the mathematical insights of Hobbes and Leibniz, the history of weather forecasting, Nils Barricelli's pioneering work on artificial life and lots of other interesting stuff -- John Naughton Observer It is a joy to read George Dyson's revelation of the very human story of the invention of the electronic computer, which he tells with wit, authority, and insight. Read Turing's Cathedral as both the origin story of our digital universe and as a preceptive glimpse into its future -- W. Daniel Hillis At long last George Dyson delivers the untold story of software's creation. It is an amazing tale brilliantly deciphered -- Kevin Kelly The world he re-creates will enthral scientific romantics ... 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 The Sunday Times An engrossing and well-researched book that recounts an important chapter in the history of 20th-century computing -- Evgeny Morozov Observer Rich in historical insight ... a timely reminder of why we should care about computers and the endless possibilities they hold The Times

Review

A wise and meticulously researched account of a vital period in our technological history, peopled by remarkable characters painted in the round -- Peter Forbes Independent Fascinating ... the story Dyson tells is intensely human, a tale of teamwork over many years and all the harmonies and rows that involves -- Jenny Uglow This wide-ranging and lyrical work is an important addition to the literature of the history of computing Economist A beautiful example of technological storytelling ... much more than a chronicle of engineering progress: it includes fascinating digressions into the history and physics of nuclear weapons, the fundamentals of mathematical logic, the mathematical insights of Hobbes and Leibniz, the history of weather forecasting, Nils Barricelli's pioneering work on artificial life and lots of other interesting stuff -- John Naughton Observer It is a joy to read George Dyson's revelation of the very human story of the invention of the electronic computer, which he tells with wit, authority, and insight. Read Turing's Cathedral as both the origin story of our digital universe and as a preceptive glimpse into its future -- W. Daniel Hillis At long last George Dyson delivers the untold story of software's creation. It is an amazing tale brilliantly deciphered -- Kevin Kelly The world he re-creates will enthral scientific romantics ... 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 The Sunday Times An engrossing and well-researched book that recounts an important chapter in the history of 20th-century computing -- Evgeny Morozov Observer Rich in historical insight ... a timely reminder of why we should care about computers and the endless possibilities they hold The Times

Product Details

  • File Size: 8624 KB
  • Print Length: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon (March 6, 2012)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B005IEGK5C
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #43,655 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
125 of 137 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How it came from bit March 6, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The physicist John Wheeler who was famous for his neologisms once remarked that the essence of the universe could be boiled down to the phrase "it from bit", signifying the creation of matter from information. This description encompasses the digital universe which now so completely pervades our existence. Many moments in history could lay claim as the creators of this universe, but as George Dyson marvelously documents in "Turing's Cathedral", the period between 1945 and 1957 at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton is as good a candidate as any.

Dyson's book focuses on the pioneering development of computing during the decade after World War II and essentially centers on one man- John von Neumann. Von Neumann is one of the very few people in history to whom the label "genius" can authentically be applied. The sheer diversity of fields to which he made important contributions beggars belief- Wikipedia lists at least twenty ranging from quantum mechanics to game theory to biology. Von Neumann's mind ranged across a staggeringly wide expanse of thought, from the purest of mathematics to the most applied nuclear weapons physics. The book recounts the path breaking efforts of him and his team to build a novel computer at the IAS in the late 1940s. Today when we are immersed in a sea of computer-generated information it is easy to take the essential idea of a computer for granted. That idea was not the transistor or the integrated circuit or even the programming language but the groundbreaking notion that you could have a machine where both data AND the instructions for manipulating that data could be stored in the same place by being encoded in a common binary language.
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342 of 387 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Misleading March 7, 2012
Format:Hardcover
The focus of George Dyson's well-written, fascinating but essentially misleading book,'Turing's Cathedral', is curiously not on celebrated mathematician, code-breaker and computer theorist Alan Turing but on his equally gifted and innovative contemporary John von Neumann. Von Neumann, whose extraordinarily varied scientific activities included inter alia significant contributions to game theory, thermodynamics and nuclear physics, is especially associated with the early development of the electronic digital computer (i.e. the 'EDC'), an interest apparently sparked by reading Turing's seminal 1936 paper 'On Computational Numbers' which attempted to systematize and express in mathematical terminology the principles underlying a purely mechanical process of computation. Implicit in this article, but at a very theoretical level, was a recognition of the relevance of stored program processing (whereby a machine's instructions and data reside in the same memory), a concept emanating from the work of mid-Victorian computer pioneer Charles Babbage but which demanded a much later electronic environment for effective realization.

What Mr Dyson insufficiently emphasizes is that, despite a widespread and ever-growing influence on the mathematical community, Turing's paper was largely ignored by contemporary electronic engineers and had negligible overall impact on the early development of the EDC. Additionally, he omits to adequately point out that von Neumann's foray into the new science of electronic computers involved a virtual total dependence on the prior work, input and ongoing support of his engineering colleagues.
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120 of 140 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Digital History that Reads Like Code March 9, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson

"Turing's Cathedral" is the uninspiring and rather dry book about the origins of the digital universe. With a title like, "Turing's Cathedral" I was expecting a riveting account about the heroic acts of Alan Turing the father of modern computer science and whose work was instrumental in breaking the wartime Enigma codes. Instead, I get a solid albeit "research-feeling" book about John von Neumann's project to construct Turing's vision of a Universal Machine. The book covers the "explosion" of the digital universe and those applications that propelled them in the aftermath of World War II. Historian of technology, George Dyson does a commendable job of research and provide some interesting stories involving the birth and development of the digital age and the great minds behind it. This 432-page book is composed of the following eighteen chapters: 1.1953, 2. Olden Farm, 3. Veblen's Circle, 4. Neumann Janos, 5. MANIAC, 6. Fuld 219, 7. 6J6, 8. V-40, 9. Cyclogenesis, 10. Monte Carlo, 11. Ulam's Demons, 12. Barricelli's Universe, 13. Turing's Cathedral, 14. Engineer's Dreams, 15. Theory of Self-Reproducing Automota, 16. Mach 9, 17. The Tale of the Big Computer, and 18. The Thirty-ninth Step.

Positives:
1. A well researched book. The author faces a daunting task of research but pulls it together.
2. The fascinating topic of the birth of the digital universe.
3. A who's who of science and engineering icons of what will eventually become computer science. A list of principal characters was very welcomed.
4. For those computer lovers who want to learn the history behind the pioneers behind digital computing this book is for you.
5.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars He says it's excellent, compares Von Neumann
This was my husband's choice and he loves it - says it's an important book for anyone interested in computer age. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Monique Sue
4.0 out of 5 stars He does better when recounting pure history and not speculating about...
I am fascinated by this period in the history of technology, and the book's major premise -- that the IAS computer and its creators represented the first true fully realized... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Gregory D. Smith
4.0 out of 5 stars Ode to von Neumann
Very interesting book. It's seems a little misnamed, since it is about von Neumann, but then again, perhaps not. The history of computers is indeed a fascinating subject.
Published 2 months ago by Timothy A. Aiken
4.0 out of 5 stars Review of Turing's Cathedral (Audiobook)
As others have noted, Dyson is fairly quotidian in style and some of his more pedantic historical pathways might bore you to death. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Ryan Mease
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
excellent!
Published 3 months ago by marybeth moscinski
3.0 out of 5 stars dry at times if your are not into computer history.
This book tells the history of the work leading to the assembly of the first computer by von Neuman at Princeton. Lot's of neat little details. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Dirk Dittmer
5.0 out of 5 stars A Computers History
Really interesting book on the making of the Computer. Great read for individuals that would like to know how it all started
Published 3 months ago by SpcRlr
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Sad good history, helpfull to understand our legacy, this magnificente era of computing everything.
Published 3 months ago by Oswaldo PEPE
3.0 out of 5 stars Hard to follow
Dyson's history of the dawn of the computing age, Turing's Cathedral, is undeniably well written and thoroughly researched. Unfortunately, it's almost incomprehensible. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Barrett Ingram
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but scattered
The book covers a lot of interesting material, but suffers from being a bit scattered in its presentation. Read more
Published 4 months ago by B. M. Kessler
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