Title: Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, by George Dyson
Motivation: Several positive reviews in the popular press.
Completed: July 9, 2012 (#48)
Recommendation: Vital to anyone whose daily bread depends upon the computer, namely, everyone.
Mr. Dyson, the son of the Princeton theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, has delivered a monumental history of the early years of the stored-program computer in and around Princeton.
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.
The book is long and demanding yet is pitch perfect in striking the tone of the Literate Scientist. (Isn’t it interesting to note that C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” are only ever successfully united by Cultured Men of Science, rather than Scienced Men of Culture?) Of course, the nature of the subject requires some occasionally daunting passages on “shift registers” and the peculiarities of the vacuum tube, but there is deep learning here, too.
The history of digital computing can be divided into an Old Testament whose prophets, led by Leibniz, supplied the logic, and a New Testament whose prophets, led by von Neumann, built the machines. Alan Turing arrived in between.
Nothing escapes Mr. Dyson’s grasp, from the prescience of Leibniz to the American Revolution, from the exile of Europe’s greatest minds at mid-century and the welcome they found in the United States to Fat Man, Little Boy and the H-Bomb. Turing’s Cathedral is a tour de force and certainly one of the highlights of 2012.