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Turing's Cathedral

Cover of Turing's Cathedral

Turing's Cathedral

The Origins of the Digital Universe
Borrow Borrow Borrow

"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.

"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.

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  • Preface

    Preface

    POINT SOURCE SOLUTION

    I am thinking about something much more important than bombs. I am thinking about computers.
    —John von Neumann, 1946


    There are two kinds of creation myths: those where life arises out of the mud, and those where life falls from the sky. In this creation myth, computers arose from the mud, and code fell from the sky.

    In late 1945, at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, Hungarian American mathematician John von Neumann gathered a small group of engineers to begin designing, building, and programming an electronic digital computer, with five kilobytes of storage, whose attention could be switched in 24 microseconds from one memory location to the next. The entire digital universe can be traced directly to this 32-by-32-by-40-bit nucleus: less memory than is allocated to displaying a single icon on a computer screen today.

    Von Neumann's project was the physical realization of Alan Turing's Universal Machine, a theoretical construct invented in 1936. It was not the first computer. It was not even the second or third computer. It was, however, among the first computers to make full use of a high-speed random-access storage matrix, and became the machine whose coding was most widely replicated and whose logical architecture was most widely reproduced. The stored-program computer, as conceived by Alan Turing and delivered by John von Neumann, broke the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things. Our universe would never be the same.

    Working outside the bounds of industry, breaking the rules of academia, and relying largely on the U.S. government for support, a dozen engineers in their twenties and thirties designed and built von Neumann's computer for less than $1 million in under five years. "He was in the right place at the right time with the right connections with the right idea," remembers Willis Ware, fourth to be hired to join the engineering team, "setting aside the hassle that will probably never be resolved as to whose ideas they really were."

    As World War II drew to a close, the scientists who had built the atomic bomb at Los Alamos wondered, "What's next?" Some, including Richard Feynman, vowed never to have anything to do with nuclear weapons or military secrecy again. Others, including Edward Teller and John von Neumann, were eager to develop more advanced nuclear weapons, especially the "Super," or hydrogen bomb. Just before dawn on the morning of July 16, 1945, the New Mexico desert was illuminated by an explosion "brighter than a thousand suns." Eight and a half years later, an explosion one thousand times more powerful illuminated the skies over Bikini Atoll. The race to build the hydrogen bomb was accelerated by von Neumann's desire to build a computer, and the push to build von Neumann's computer was accelerated by the race to build a hydrogen bomb.

    Computers were essential to the initiation of nuclear explosions, and to understanding what happens next. In "Point Source Solution," a 1947 Los Alamos report on the shock waves produced by nuclear explosions, von Neumann explained that "for very violent explosions . . . it may be justified to treat the original, central, high pressure area as a point." This approximated the physical reality of a nuclear explosion closely enough to enable some of the first useful predictions of weapons effects.

    Numerical simulation of chain reactions within computers initiated a chain reaction among computers, with machines and codes proliferating as explosively as the phenomena they were designed to help us...

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).

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    January 9, 2012
    An overstuffed meditation on all things digital sprouts from this engrossing study of how engineers at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, under charismatic mathematician John von Neumann (the book should really be titled Von Neumann’s Cathedral), built a pioneering computer (called MANIAC) in the years after WWII. To readers used to thinking of computers as magical black boxes, historian Dyson (Darwin Among the Machines) gives an arresting view of old-school mechanics hammering the first ones together from vacuum tubes, bicycle wheels, and punch-cards. Unfortunately, his account of technological innovations is too sketchy for laypeople to quite follow. The narrative frames a meandering tour of the breakthroughs enabled by early computers, from hydrogen bombs to weather forecasting, and grandiose musings on the digital worldview of MANIAC’s creators, in which the author loosely connects the Internet, DNA, and the possibility of extraterrestrial invasion via interstellar radio signals. Dyson’s portrait of the subculture of Von Neumann and other European émigré scientists who midwifed America’s postwar technological order is lively and piquant. But the book bites off more science than it can chew, and its expositions of hard-to-digest concepts from Gödel’s theorem to the Turing machine are too hasty and undeveloped to sink in.

  • William Poundstone, The New York Times Book 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."
  • Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing "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."
  • Richard DiDio, Philadelphia Inquirer "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."
  • Andrew Keen, B&N Review "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."
  • Kirkus (starred 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."
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