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Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the…

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (original 2012; edition 2012)

by George Dyson

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Title:Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe
Authors:George Dyson
Info:Pantheon Books (2012), Hardcover, 432 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Computers, Science, Innovation, IAS

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Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson (2012)

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In large part a nonlinear biography of John von Neumann and history of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where von Neumann in the late 1940s did his influential-ever-after "architecting" of the MANIAC computer. Woven in are discussions of many relevant topics such as Gödel/Turing metamathematics, early ways of programming, Monte Carlo approximation, the theory of self-reproducing automata, and today's accelerating trend towards a compu-singularity. (Why not mention the obliteration of privacy, Mr Dyson?) Overwhelming everything, however, is the dreary -- nay, sick and ghastly -- fact that nuclear weaponry and other military evils were the main driving force behind the building of the first electronic digital computers with Turing universality. A powerful, discerning, penetrating book.
  fpagan | Aug 29, 2013 |
Couldn't get into it - the style of writing was very irritating. Gave up after 3 chapters. ( )
  SChant | May 3, 2013 |
Meandering and portentous but very much worth reading… ( )
  Katong | Apr 14, 2013 |
Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe
George Dyson
April 1, 2013

George Dyson is interestingly the son of Freeman Dyson, who was part of the events chronicled in the book. The author describes the creation of the first electronic computer, the MANIAC, at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, starting in 1949 and completing in 1953. The impresario of the project was John von Neumann, who gathered engineers to build the computer and helped to design the first programming language. Much of the impetus for the computer was to complete calculations for the hydrogen bomb, then in development. The mathematicians and physicists involved were mostly also involved in the atomic bomb project in Los Alamos. The computer used vacuum tubes, and the filament heaters consumed several kilowatts of power, and the air conditioning to keep the apparatus cool also used gross amounts of power, often icing over in the humidity. The memory was about 5 kilobytes, stored in Williams' cathode-ray storage tubes (the persistent phosphor glow allowed bits to be retained, and read out by the electron beam). The engineers were the first to develop a command line, and read instructions into the machine with paper tape, later punch cards. The input and output followed the same patterns as earlier special purpose machines like those at Bletchely Park in England during WWII, and ENIAC created for calculating artillery tables. This is a fascinating time in engineering history, but the story is very liberally padded with irrelevant information, like the history of Princeton in Indian and Colonial times. Dyson at times speculates about the "digital universe" and its relationship to human thought: "With our cooperation, self-reproducing numbers are exercising increasingly detailed and far-reaching control over the conditions in our universe that make life more comfortable in theirs". "The paradox of artificial intelligence is that any system simple enough to understand is not complicated enough to behave intelligently, and any system complicated enough to behave intelligently is not simple enough to understand." It is interesting that random searches may be more efficient on large machines than encoding a solution to a problem, and by looking through the number of solutions that have already been encoded in the digital universe, it may be easier to find answers. "In 2010 you could buy a computer with over a billion transistors for the inflation adjusted cost of a transistor radio in 1956" ( )
  neurodrew | Apr 7, 2013 |
I was drawn to this book by its title & cover design. "Turing" in the title plus the punched cover directly meant (at least in my own mind) that it was about Alan Turing and the Universal machine.
Before this book I knew little about Turing's universal machine and the origins of the computer. I knew about Von Neumann only by the name.

After reading this book, I got more interested about computers. I now have an awareness about how powerful the computer is (especially in our times) and how inefficient we (or at least me) are using it. Now I know the origins of the ENIAC, MANIAC & their derivatives. Know I know what an "app" was like in the 1950's.

Turing's Cathedral (still not sure why "Cathedral"!; maybe referring to the computer as the cathedral?) is an exciting read especially for the computer enthusiast, mathematicians, physicists, and scientists in general. It is eloquently written and describes things in details.

What I liked most about it is that it has references to actual scientific papers written the creators of the computer. As a matter of fact I have selected a couple of papers too read.

I finished the book without even knowing it. It suddenly stops without prior notice, as if there is a continuation that has been cut.

I really enjoyed reading this book and recommend it for everyone, literally everyone. ( )
  Astrobob | Feb 22, 2013 |
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It was not made for those who sell oil or sardines . . .
--G. W. Leibniz
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At 10:30 P.M. on March 3, 1953, in a one-story brick building at the end of Olden Lane in Princeton, New Jersey, Italian Norwegian mathematical biologist Nils Aall Barricelli inoculated a 5-kilobyte digital universe with random numbers generated by drawing playing cards from a shuffled deck.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375422773, Hardcover)

“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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:56:01 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"Legendary historian and philosopher of science George Dyson vividly re-creates the scenes of focused experimentation, incredible mathematical insight, and pure creative genius that gave us computers, digital television, modern genetics, models of stellar evolution--in other words, computer code. In the 1940s and '50s, a group of eccentric geniuses--led by John von Neumann--gathered at the newly created Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Their joint project was the realization of the theoretical universal machine, an idea that had been put forth by mathematician Alan Turing. This group of brilliant engineers worked in isolation, almost entirely independent from industry and the traditional academic community. But because they relied exclusively on government funding, the government wanted its share of the results: the computer that they built also led directly to the hydrogen bomb. George Dyson has uncovered a wealth of new material about this project, and in bringing the story of these men and women and their ideas to life, he shows how the crucial advancements that dominated twentieth-century technology emerged from one computer in one laboratory, where the digital universe as we know it was born"--"Legendary historian and philosopher of science George Dyson vividly re-creates the scenes of focused experimentation, incredible mathematical insight, and pure creative genius that gave us computers, digital television, modern genetics, models of stellar evolution--in other words, computer code"--… (more)

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