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Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

by George Dyson
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (89 customer reviews)


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Book Description

March 6, 2012 0375422773 978-0375422775 First Edition

“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

“An expansive narrative . . . The book brims with unexpected detail. Maybe the bomb (or the specter of the machines) affected everyone. Gödel believed his food was poisoned and starved himself to death. Turing, persecuted for his homosexuality, actually did die of poisoning, perhaps by biting a cyanide-laced apple. Less well known is the tragic end of Klári von Neumann, a depressive Jewish socialite who became one of the world’s first machine-language programmers and enacted the grandest suicide of the lot, downing cocktails before walking into the Pacific surf in a black dress with fur cuffs. Dyson’s well made sentences are worthy of these operatic contradictions . . . A groundbreaking history of the Princeton computer.”
—William Poundstone, The New York Times Book Review

“Dyson combines his prodigious skills as a historian and writer with his privileged position within the [Institute for Advanced Study’s] history to present a vivid account of the digital computer project . . .  A powerful story of the ethical dimension of scientific research, a story whose lessons apply as much today in an era of expanded military R&D as they did in the ENIAC and MANIAC era . . . Dyson closes the book with three absolutely, hair-on-neck-standing-up inspiring chapters on the present and future, a bracing reminder of the distance we have come on some of the paths envisioned by von Neumann, Turing, et al.”
—Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing
 
“A fascinating combination of the technical and human stories behind the computing breakthroughs of the 1940s and ’50s . . . It demonstrates that the power of human thought often precedes determination and creativity in the birth of world-changing technology . . . An important work.”
—Richard DiDio, Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Dyson’s book is not only learned, but brilliantly and surprisingly idiosyncratic and strange.”
—Josh Rothman, Braniac blog, Boston Globe
 
“Beyond the importance of this book as a contribution to the history of science, as a generalist I was struck by Dyson’s eye and ear for the delightfully entertaining detail . . . Turing’s Cathedral is suffused . . . with moments of insight, quirk and hilarity rendering it more than just a great book about science. It’s a great book, period.”
—Douglas Bell, The Globe and Mail
 
“The greatest strength of Turing’s Cathedral lies in its luscious wealth of anecdotal details about von Neumann and his band of scientific geniuses at IAS.  Dyson himself is the son of Freeman Dyson, one of America’s greatest twentieth-century physicists and an IAS member from 1948 onward, and so Turing’s Cathedral is, in part, Dyson’s attempt to make both moral and intellectual sense of his father’s glittering and yet severely compromised scientific generation.”
—Andrew Keen, B&N Review

“A mesmerizing tale brilliantly told . . . . The use of wonderful quotes and pithy sketches of the brilliant cast of characters further enriches the text . . . . Meticulously researched and packed with not just technological details, but sociopolitical and cultural details as well—the definitive history of the computer.”
Kirkus (starred review)
 
“The most powerful technology of the last century was not the atomic bomb, but software—and both were invented by the same folks. Even as they were inventing it, the original geniuses imagined almost everything software has become since. At long last, George Dyson delivers the untold story of software’s creation. It is an amazing tale brilliantly deciphered.”
—Kevin Kelly, cofounder of WIRED magazine, author of What Technology Wants
 
“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 perceptive glimpse into its future.”
—W. Daniel Hillis, inventor of The Connection Machine, author of The Pattern on the Stone

About the Author

George Dyson is a historian of technology whose interests include the development (and redevelopment) of the Aleut kayak (Baidarka), the evolution of digital computing and telecommunications (Darwin Among the Machines), and the exploration of space (Project Orion).


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; First Edition edition (March 6, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375422773
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375422775
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.6 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (89 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #237,860 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
118 of 129 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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327 of 371 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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111 of 126 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 Cathedral as architcture as metaphor
I liked the book.
As an aside, the 1 a 2 star reviewers seemed to think the book was going to be a biography of Turing which misreads the title: It's about the design and... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Martin Montana
3.0 out of 5 stars Exploring how the development of nuclear weapons drove the creation of...
Alan Turing was a brilliant British mathematician who predicted in 1936 that "It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Andrew W. Johns
5.0 out of 5 stars Turing.... von Neumann!! Princeton too..
Its amazing how obvious the electronic computer was to v Neumann. He read Turings paper in the 30s, and said to himself, "ill have to build that if I can get someone to pay for... Read more
Published 2 months ago by B. Burge
5.0 out of 5 stars Very complete, but the title might be slightly misleading
A more descriptive title might be, "Von Neumann's Cathedral"; Alan Turing is barely mentioned. The book is almost entirely concerned with the Computer Development branch of... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Old Professor
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointed – I found this book over-stuffed, disorganized and...
I was disappointed in this book. I expected it to be about the work Alan Turing did to develop the modern computer, or at least about the origins of the modern computer. Read more
Published 3 months ago by John W.
5.0 out of 5 stars A very serious account of the digital age, sobering to say the least!
I have read many reviews of this book, and I am disappointed by the lack of vision of some of the readers. Suffice it to say, this book represents much more than meets the eye. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Michael Rothberg
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book but its not about Alan Turing, rather it references...
A very interesting history of the beginnings of the computer age. Although the title is a bit misleading, one might infer that the book is about Alan Turing, it's not although... Read more
Published 4 months ago by John M. Schreiner
5.0 out of 5 stars Our World is Digital
It is not at all easily understood why digital changed the analog world my father grew up in. Dad always solved problems with a series of levers, cams, etc that made the such... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Gordon R. Flygare
2.0 out of 5 stars Doesn't Live Up To It's Title
While portions of this book were very good (coverage of von Neumann in particular) it does not live up to it's subtitle - "The Origins of the Digital Universe". Read more
Published 4 months ago by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book on von Neumann -- title notwithstanding
I would have titled this book: von Neumann and the Origins of the Digital Universe. The discussion of Turing's universal machine is short and somewhat superficial, but the... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Jon ten Oever
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