George Dyson - Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe


George Dyson's book (2012) is about the origins of the modern computer, developed in a time when a computer wore skirts. A 'computer' was a woman with an adder, a calculation machine. They were working in teams to create tables for -say - grenade launchers, to calculate the right trajectory for any given configuration.

The machine Dyson writes about was a different kind. The kind with vacuum tubes and wires. A Turing Machine like a walk-in closet, a cathedral of calculation. He recalls the history of computers with names like ENIAC and MANIAC. The brainchildren not only of Babbage and Turing, but most of all of John von Neumann. MANIAC made calculations about the weather, the evolution of species and for tables used by anti-aircraft gunners, but it was famous (or maybe notorious) because of the calculations it did on the H-Bomb: neutrino behavior, shockwaves. That all in a computer which was special because it was the first to be equipped with Random Access Memory (RAM).

The book recalls the origin of the place where Von Neumann worked on his love child, IAS (Institute for Advanced Studies) in Princeton, and tells the story about the many persons involved. These people included Stanislaw Ulam, who developed the famous Monte Carlo statistics approach, and engineer Julian Bigelow, who could make a space rocket from two empty jerrycans and a wooden plank.
The story shows how intertwined the scientific effort was with the war effort, which regularly led to friction. It also gives a great account of the development, its ups as well as its downs, of the IAS.

The book is meticulously documented. No detail is left out. It can overwhelm you. Added to that George Dyson jumps forwards and backwards through time; as soon as a new character is introduced he starts all over again: 'X was born in Y. His father was Z, a simple farmer from ...' It makes the account even more hard to follow.
At the end of the book I had the impression that I knew a lot about everyone and everything, but not about the exact order in which it all happened. My guess is that George Dyson, son of Freeman Dyson, is too much of an insider. He knew every one of them and can place them exactly in their respective contexts. Not so for the average reader. In that respect it's not so much a book for specialists (as everything is well explained) but for people who are willing to take the time to learn the cast of characters, even if it means to stop reading and revisit the whole list. Some organization schedules of the IAS through the years might have been a good addition.

Overall the subject is interesting enough and its prose captivating enough to make it a 'four out of five stars' book. Even if Georges Dyson's story requires a lot of human brain RAM to process effectively.