Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe 1st Edition
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—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).
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The prose is engaging but written for fellow scientists or, at least, the scientifically literate. Because of the fact that Dyson chose to write the book above the level of popular science his book didn't go viral in the way of, say, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.
However, even though I read this book several years ago, I can say I've rarely had the pleasure of reading a finer work since. Highly recommended for a select kind of reader.
1. Download and print the image with the black squares at 100%, full page, dont fit to frame.
2. Place paper on top of cover and align with holes. make creases along the edges of the book except along the binding.
3. Cut just inside of the three fold lines from step 2.
4. Fold the remaining edge along the binding and tape that to the first page.
As far as the contents of the book: Still reading. It's light on technical details as others have pointed out but goes into the history and background of how the researchers got to the Institute, some escaping Germany to do so. Overall enjoyable and informative. Some of the details G. Dyson adds are a result of his sleuthing and searching basements and archives for original documents. When coming across those passages I feel close to the source.
The writer is the son of a physicist at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study (interesting photo of the author at age 3 wandering about, and his account of how he and his playmates scavenged obsolete electronic gear in an old nearby barn), so he include personal letters, recollections, encounters, interviews, and subject matter from the early digital era. I found the story fascinating.
I did have one problem, which is that I had a hard time understanding exactly how "random access memory" (the RAM we have in our computers nowadays) worked. The author moved very quickly from Alan Turing's one-dimensional infinitely long paper tape, to two-dimensional, and then three-dimensional forty floor "hotel suites" where memory was addressed. Oh, well. My bad.
Still, a wonderfully eloquent, well researched and quite readable work.
Top international reviews
I skimmed sections that seemed dense in technical details of valves and command lines, but the stories of wives and women working on computer hardware and programmes, plus the vibrant "work hard, play hard" atmosphere in the various campus-type living arrangements were fascinating. Klari von Neumann's narrative was one of the most engaging for me. I also quite like stories of how institutions are shaped, so I wasn't put off by this strand.
A stand out comment related to the power of computer processing keeping men honest, because we've all seen how powerful computer models can be created and used dishonestly.
The Manchester University Small Scale Experimental Machine or Baby was repeatedly referred to in the same breath as Colossus and thus was a bit confusing. For instance "the core of the computing group from Bletchley Park were continuing from where their work on Colossus had left off". I (unlike the author who counts Max Newman as the core) imagine that the core of the computing group were the ones who actually designed and built the machine; Williams, Kilburn and Tootill who had all been based at the Telecommunications Research Establishment in Malvern. It isn't the most straightforward of family trees, but these vague references don't help to give people their proper credits or to understand why things came about in the way they did.
Kindle-wise, quite a few of the photos at the end seemed to have become separated from their captions on the following page which is a bit annoying, but I don't remember any particularly awful lay out issues.
Unusually for me, I wrote over the margins all the things that irritated me as I was reading - The analogies, the hyperbole, the sentences that I re-read only to still find no meaning.
A very disappointing book.
The first of these is a certain lack of balance. Despite the title, Alan Turing is given only a minor role, and - despite some acknowledgement of British contributions to both the MANIAC project and other early computers - the author clearly takes the view that von Neumann and IAS were the principle inventors of the modern stored program computer. This is debatable. British computer developments were ahead of US developments at many stages during this period, including the completion of Colossus ahead of ENIAC, the completion of the Manchester Baby ahead of MANIAC and other early computers, and the introduction of the Ferranti Mark1 as the first commercially available computer. von Neumann's "First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC" (1945) was the first published account of the idea of a stored program computer, and gave rise to the term "von Neumann architecture" which is still used today, but the idea had by then been current for a year or two and others, including Turing, were already experimenting with it. It can be argued that storage, or "memory" was the key innovation that allowed computing to develop and, once used for intermediate results during a computation, its use to store programs was an invention waiting to happen. Therefore, the book should be read in conjunction with Andrew Hodge's "Alan Turing: The Enigma" and other books on early computers to arrive at a balanced view.
The second flaw is, unfortunately, more serious. Dyson's view of the "digital universe" is based on his perception of current offerings from companies such as Amazon, Facebook and Google and on a dystopian interpretation of modern developments in which computers and networks reproduce themselves and become the controllers of mankind rather than its servant - a view more reminiscient of works of science fiction such as The Matrix rather than serious history. Several of the later chapters contain uncritical discussions of this theme. Dyson argues that computers have influenced human behaviour - and so, of course, has every other new technology - but he also says "Facebook defines who we are; Amazon defines what we want; Google defines what we think." Really? We are just waking up to the fact these companies pay little or no tax in the UK but, given the fact that their current services are easily fooled, perhaps we don't to worry about them taking over our minds just yet.
Because of - or perhaps in spite of - this background I found it extremely difficult to review George Dyson's book. The claim on the back cover that the book 'can be read as literature whether or not you have any interest in computers and machine intelligence' is, in my view, grossly misleading and dangerously inaccurate.
For example, we learn on page 301 that (verbatim) "the codes spawned in 1951 have proliferated, but their nature has not changed. They are symbiotic associations of self-reproducing numbers (starting with a primitive alphabet of order codes) that were granted limited, elemental powers, the way a limited alphabet of nucleotide sequences code for an elemental set of aminio acids - with polynucleotides, proteins, and everything else that follows developing from there."
This, I submit, is hardly something that can be read as literature. Although I have a reasonable scientific background I had similar difficulties with sections dealing with Monte Carlo statistical techniques, chaos theory in meteorology and with the theory of self-reproducing automata.
The research that Mr Dyson carried out in developing the various chapters is, of course, impressive but I would have found the book far more interesting and informative had he concentrated on developing the subject matter within a chronological timeline - and, even better, had he focused on explaining it rather than simply relying on extremely erudite statements. He also, and very obviously, found it difficult to decide whether to concentrate on:
1. tracing the development of the digital computer itself. If so, the material on the theory of Turing's Universal Machine should appear before page 243 whilst a summary of the prophetic work of Gottfried Leibniz at the end of the 17th century would be better located before pages 103 to 105. There is, admittedly, a large amount of information on the development of various digital components and storage techniques but, unfortunately, this is scattered throughout the book.
2. examining the work of a number of eminent scientists and focusing on how, by applying the evolving digital technology to their research work, they influenced and contributed to the development of that technology. There is a large amount of interesting background information on the scientists themselves (and on the occasional clash of mercurial personalities) including such anecdotal gems as the hospital at Los Alamos charging one dollar a day for diapers. But...
The depth of material in 'Turing's Cathedral' is immense which - had it been the sole criteria - would have justified a five-star rating. However, the lack of a coherent timeline and his difficulty in dealing with highly complex scientific issues reduces my rating to a more than generous three stars.
In my opinion the 1953 book Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines gives a far better overview of developments prior to that date. That edition is, unfortunately, now out of print but 1955, 1957 and 1963 reprints are listed on Amazon. Out of interest the copy on my bookshelf contains, as a bookmark, a receipt dated 3rd December 1953 showing that it cost me £1:16s:3d...!
I enjoyed sections of this book but found myself skipping page after page of background information where I really couldn't detect any relevance. Where this book is good is in getting into the hardware and software and what the machines were actually used for. The book would benefit from stripping out 100 pages of stuff like the origins of the land the IAS was built on and the personal attributes of people like Klari Von Neumann plus a logical ordering of the story, probably worth 5 stars then as the material is there.