- Paperback: 464 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; 1St Edition edition (December 11, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1400075998
- ISBN-13: 978-1400075997
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars See all reviews (156 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #305,535 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe 1St Edition Edition
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“The best book I’ve read on the origins of the computer. . . not only learned, but brilliantly and surprisingly idiosyncratic and strange.”
—The Boston Globe
“A groundbreaking history . . . the book brims with unexpected detail.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“A technical, philosophical and sometimes personal account . . . wide-ranging and lyrical.”
“The story of the [von Neumann] computer project and how it begat today’s digital universe has been told before, but no one has told it with such precision and narrative sweep.”
—The New York Review of Books
“A fascinating combination of the technical and human stories behind the computing breakthroughs of the 1940s and ‘50s. . . . An important work.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Vivid. . . . [A] detailed yet readable chronicle of the birth of modern computing. . . . Dyson’s book is one small step toward reminding us that behind all the touch screens, artificial intelligences and cerebellum implants lies not sorcery but a machine from the middle of New Jersey.”
“Well-told. . . . Dyson tells his story as a sort of intellectual caper film. He gathers his cast of characters . . . and tracks their journey to Princeton. When they converge, it’s great fun, despite postwar food rationing and housing shortages. . . . Dyson is rightly as concerned with the machine’s inventors as with the technology itself."
—The Wall Street Journal
“Charming. . . . Creation stories are always worth telling, especially when they center on the birth of world-changing powers. . . . Dyson creatively recounts the curious Faustian bargain that permitted mathematicians to experiment with building more powerful computers, which in turn helped others build more destructive bombs.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“The story of the invention of computers has been told many times, from many different points of view, but seldom as authoritatively and with as much detail as George Dyson has done. . . . Turing’s Cathedral will enthrall computer enthusiasts. . . . Employing letters, memoirs, oral histories and personal interviews, Dyson organizes his book around the personalities of the men (and occasional woman) behind the computer, and does a splendid job in bringing them to life.”
—The Seattle Times
“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
“No other book about the beginnings of the digital age . . . makes the connections this one does between the lessons of the computer’s origin and the possible paths of its future.”
“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.”
“More than just a great book about science. It’s a great book, period.”
—The Globe and Mail
About the Author
George Dyson is a science historian as well as a boat designer and builder. He is also the author of Baidarka, Project Orion, and Darwin Among the Machines.
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Top Customer Reviews
Turing and von Neumann make their appearances here, of course, along with Mauchley, Eckert, Oppenheimer, Ulam, Freeman Dyson (the authors' father), and other notables of the era. But Dyson also tells the story of a number of pioneers and contributors to the design, construction, and most of all the theory of computation, who have been overlooked by history. Most remarkable, perhaps, is Nils Barricelli, who could justifiably be called the founder of computational biology. Working in the early 1950s with a computer having less computational power and memory than a modern day sewing machine, he created a one-dimensional, artificial,universe in order to explore the relative power of mutation and symbiosis is the evolution of organisms. His work led to a number of original discoveries and conclusions that would only be rediscovered or proposed decades later, such as the notion that genes originated as independent organism, like viruses, that combined to create more complex organisms.
There's an entire chapter on a vacuum tube, the lowly 6J6, a dual triode created during the war that combined several elements necessary for the creation of a large scale computer: Simplicity, ruggedness, and economy. It fulfilled one of von Neumann's guiding principals for ENIAC: Don't invent anything. That is, don't waste time inventing where solutions already exist. By the nature of its relative unreliability and wide production tolerances relative to project goals, it also helped stimulate a critical line of research, that of how to created reliable systems from unreliable components- something more important now than ever in this era of microprocessors and memory chips with millions and even billions of components on a chip.
The chapter on Alan Turing is particularly good, covering as it does much of his work that has been neglected in biographies and presenting a much more accurate description of his work and his contributions to computational science. The great importance of his conceptual computer- the "Turing Machine"- is not, as is commonly stated in popular works, that it can perform the work of any other computer. It is that it demonstrated how any possible computing machine can be represented as a number, and vice versa. This allowed him to construct a proof that there exist uncomputable strings, I.e., programs for which it could not be determined a priori whether they will eventually halt. This was strongly related to Godel's work on the completeness of formal systems, and part of a larger project to disprove Godel's incompleteness theorem.
What makes this a particularly exceptional book is the manner in which Dyson connects the stories of individuals involved in the birth of electronic computing with the science itself. He does an exceptional job of explaining difficult topics like Godel incompleteness, the problems of separating noise from data, and the notion of computability in a way that the intelligent read who may not have advanced math skills will understand. More importantly, he understands the material well enough to know what are the critical concepts and accomplishments of these pioneers of computing, and doesn't fall into the trap of repeating the errors of far too many popular science writers. The result is a thoroughly original, accurate, and tremendously enjoyable history. Strongly recommended to anyone curious about the origins of computers and more importantly, the science of computing itself.
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.