Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe

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“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...

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Overview

“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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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

During the 1940s and 1950s, a group of eccentric masterminds at the Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study pursued research that continues to change our world. This new book is best described by Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly: "The most powerful technology of the last century was not the atomic bomb, but software—and both were invented by the same folks. Even as they were inventing it, the original geniuses imagined almost everything software has become since. At long last, George Dyson delivers the untold story of software's creation. It is an amazing tale brilliantly deciphered."

Vicki Powers

Publishers Weekly
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. (Mar.)
Library Journal
In the 1940s and 1950s, scientists at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, worked to realize Alan Turing's dream of a universal machine, which led to computers, digital television, modern genetics, and more. Because their work was funded by the government, which therefore expected to benefit from the results, it also led to the creation of the hydrogen bomb. Distinguished science writer Dyson is the son of renowned physicist Freeman Dyson, who worked at the institute in the 1950s, so you can expect an insightful book. With an eight-city tour.
Kirkus Reviews
That we live in a digital universe is indisputable; how we got there is a mesmerizing tale brilliantly told by science historian Dyson (Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957–1965, 2002, etc.) The author establishes late 1945 as the birth date of the first stored-program machine, built at the Institute for Advanced Study, established in Princeton in 1932 as a haven for theoreticians. It happened under the watch of the brilliant mathematician John von Neumann, fresh from commutes to Los Alamos where the atom bomb had been built and the hydrogen bomb only a gleam in Edward Teller's eye. Dyson makes clear that the motivation for some of the world's greatest technological advances has always been to perfect instruments of war. Indeed, von Neumann's colleagues included some who had been at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where a dedicated-purpose computer, ENIAC, had been built to calculate firing tables for antiaircraft artillery. The IAS computer, MANIAC, was used to determine the parameters governing the fission of an atom device inside an H-bomb that would then ignite the fusion reaction. But for von Neumann and others, the MANIAC was also the embodiment of Alan Turing's universal machine, an abstract invention in the '30s by the mathematician who would go on to crack the Nazi's infamous Enigma code in World War II. In addition to these stories, Dyson discusses climate and genetic-modeling projects programmed on the MANIAC. The use of wonderful quotes and pithy sketches of the brilliant cast of characters further enriches the text. Who knew that eccentric mathematician-logician Kurt Gödel had married a Viennese cabaret dancer? Meticulously researched and packed with not just technological details, but sociopolitical and cultural details as well--the definitive history of the computer.
William Poundstone
…a groundbreaking history of the Princeton computer. Though the English mathematician Alan Turing gets title billing, Dyson's true protagonist is the Hungarian-­American John von Neumann, presented here as the Steve Jobs of early computers—a man who invented almost nothing, yet whose vision changed the world…Turing's Cathedral, incorporating original research and reporting…is an expansive narrative wherein every character, place and idea rates a digression…The book brims with unexpected detail.
—The New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher
“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.”
—William Poundstone, The New York Times Book Review

“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.”
—Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing
 
“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.”
—Richard DiDio, Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Dyson’s book is not only learned, but brilliantly and surprisingly idiosyncratic and strange.”
—Josh Rothman, Braniac blog, Boston Globe
 
“Beyond the importance of this book as a contribution to the history of science, as a generalist I was struck by Dyson’s eye and ear for the delightfully entertaining detail . . . Turing’s Cathedral is suffused . . . with moments of insight, quirk and hilarity rendering it more than just a great book about science. It’s a great book, period.”
—Douglas Bell, The Globe and Mail
 
“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.”
—Andrew Keen, B&N 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.”
Kirkus (starred review)
 
“The most powerful technology of the last century was not the atomic bomb, but software—and both were invented by the same folks. Even as they were inventing it, the original geniuses imagined almost everything software has become since. At long last, George Dyson delivers the untold story of software’s creation. It is an amazing tale brilliantly deciphered.”
—Kevin Kelly, cofounder of WIRED magazine, author of What Technology Wants
 
“It is a joy to read George Dyson’s revelation of the very human story of the invention of the electronic computer, which he tells with wit, authority, and insight. Read Turing’s Cathedral as both the origin story of our digital universe and as a perceptive glimpse into its future.”
—W. Daniel Hillis, inventor of The Connection Machine, author of The Pattern on the Stone

The Barnes & Noble Review

In early 1947, Jack Rosenberg, a bored researcher in Princeton University's Physics Department, heard about an intriguing new job opportunity. As he told George Dyson, the author of Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe: "I was informed that at the Institute for Advanced Study, a famous scientist was looking for an engineer to develop an electronic machine of a sort no one but he understood."

That "famous scientist" was a Hungarian émigré mathematician called John von Neumann, and the electronic machine he was developing at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) was, of course, the computer, the central product of today's networked society. And it's this story, of von Neumann's attempt to assemble a team of the world's most brilliant twentieth-century scientists at IAS, that forms the central narrative in this sparkling new book by one of America's most talented historians of technology.

The book's title refers to the profoundly simple quotation by the English mathematician Alan Turing. "It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computational sequence," the then twenty-four-year-old Turing wrote in 1936. And Turing's Cathedral is the story of the pioneering efforts at IAS to build this "single machine," one that, as David Rosenberg notes, only von Neumann "understood."

As digital devices are woven into our lives with increasing ubiquity, we take for granted the elegant interconnection of our networked electronics. But, of course, that overall structure — the seamless architecture of computer hardware, operating system, and software — had to be invented. That's the "cathedral" von Neumann and his IAS team helped construct. And Dyson's book is both a lucid and accessible story of how that cathedral got built as well as being a kind of cathedral of its own in honor of its architects.

But 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.

Dyson leaves us with a memorable portrait of John von Neumann (known as Johnny to friends and family), a scion of a wealthy Catholic Budapest family, who came to America in the 1930s and who, in spite of his love of fast cars, gambling, and women, always remained an enigma. "If a mentally superhuman race ever develops, its members will resemble Johnny von Neumann," says IAS member Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, who credits a "neural superconductivity" with Neumann's unique genius.

Neumann's genius, Dyson explains, was in many ways an ability to recognize the genius in others. And Turing's Cathedral is in large part constructed of the vivid stories of those other scientists whom von Neumann brought to Princeton in the 1930s and 1940s and assembled as an all-star team of scientific missionaries. There's the amateur aviator and computer engineer Julian Bigelow, for example, who stored aircraft engines in the living room of his house, a former blacksmith's shop in central Princeton. Then there's the Austrian émigré mathematician Kurt Gödel, who was so "eccentric" that, as a young man, he developed a fear of being poisoned and would only eat food provided by his family. Even the woman who wrote the menus at the IAS cafeteria, Bernetta Miller, had been one of the first female pilots and had demonstrated monoplanes for the U.S. Army.

Best of all, though, is Dyson's portrait of von Neumann's closest friend and intellectual collaborator, the brilliant mathematician Stan Ulam, a Polish Jew from a wealthy Lwów family who fled to the United States in the summer of 1939. Dyson is excellent in not only describing what he calls "Ulam's demons" but also in charting the special friendship and working relationship between Ulam and von Neumann, two aristocrats from a disappearing world whose unique intellects would reinvent the new world.

It's a pleasure to marvel at these remarkable minds and the great changes they set in motion. But the reverse of the story is sobering. Dyson shows that von Neumann's government-funded invention of the computer was inextricably linked to the development of both the atomic and hydrogen bombs. You see, the mathematics that made possible the architecture of computers was also the mathematics that would simulate the consequences of thermonuclear fusion. The moral costs then, Dyson estimates, of IAS's discovery of our digital universe are as enigmatic as Johnny von Neumann himself, a mentally superhuman mathematician who died at the age of only fifty-four. The cause was bone cancer, which, some speculate, was derived from his attendance at the 1951 Bikini nuclear tests.

Andrew Keen is author of The Cult of the Amateur, which has been translated into fifteen languages. He hosts "Keen On," the popular weekly media and culture show on Techcrunch.com and regularly tweets at www.twitter.com/ajkeen.

Reviewer: Andrew Keen

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375422775
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/6/2012
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 6.58 (w) x 9.92 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet 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. He lives in Washington State.

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Read an Excerpt

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 understand. It is no coincidence that the most destructive and the most constructive of human inventions appeared at exactly the same time. Only the collective intelligence of computers could save us from the destructive powers of the weapons they had allowed us to invent.
 
Turing’s model of universal computation was one-dimensional: a string of symbols encoded on a tape. Von Neumann’s implementation of Turing’s model was two-dimensional: the address matrix underlying all computers in use today. The landscape is now three-dimensional, yet the entire Internet can still be viewed as a common tape shared by a multitude of Turing’s Universal Machines.
 
Where does time fit in? Time in the digital universe and time in our universe are governed by entirely different clocks. In our universe, time is a continuum. In a digital universe, time (T) is a countable number of discrete, sequential steps. A digital universe is bounded at the beginning, when T = 0, and at the end, if T comes to a stop. Even in a perfectly deterministic universe, there is no consistent method to predict the ending in advance. To an observer in our universe, the digital universe appears to be speeding up. To an observer in the digital universe, our universe appears to be slowing down.
 
Universal codes and universal machines, introduced by Alan Turing in his “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” of 1936, have prospered to such an extent that Turing’s underlying interest in the “decision problem” is easily overlooked. In answering the Entscheidungsproblem, Turing proved that there is no systematic way to tell, by looking at a code, what that code will do. That’s what makes the digital universe so interesting, and that’s what brings us here.
 
It is impossible to predict where the digital universe is going, but it is possible to understand how it began. The origin of the first fully electronic random-access storage matrix, and the propagation of the codes that it engendered, is as close to a point source as any approximation can get.

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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Principal Characters xvii

1 1953 3

2 Olden Farm 11

3 Veblen's Circle 18

4 Neumann János 40

5 MANIAC 64

6 Fuld 219 88

7 6J6 108

8 V-40 130

9 Cyclogenesis 154

10 Monte Carlo 175

11 Ulam's Demons 200

12 Barricelli's Universe 225

13 Turing's Cathedral 243

14 Engineer's Dreams 266

15 Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata 282

16 Mach 9 294

17 The Tale of the Big Computer 303

18 The Thirty-ninth Step 315

Key to Archival Sources 339

Notes 341

Index 379

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 13 )
Rating Distribution

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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 9, 2012

    An excellent historical of the people who invented the computer era.

    This book is a very detailed study of the people who developed the ideas which resulted in the building of ENIAC, MANIAC etc. It is an amazing biography of John von Neumann and the people around him at the Instutute for Advanced Study. Virtually all the great mathematicians and physicists of the 1920's, 1930's, 1940's and 1950's are mentioned. The contributions and personalities of Einstein, Godel, Turing,and many others are mentioned in detail. I recommend this book for any person interested in computing, physics, mathematics and history of the mid 20th century. The research is excellent. The author of this book is the son of Freeman Dyson who worked with John von Neumann.

    13 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 29, 2012

    This is an exceptional book describing the origins of the comput

    This is an exceptional book describing the origins of the computer and the people who invented, designed and built them. The behind-the-scenes account is riveting.
    The book hooks the reader right from the beginniing.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 9, 2012

    Fascinating read

    This is one of the most interesting computer books ever!

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2014

    A truly respectful view survived by ten of eighty six after 100 years of revolutionary effort.

    A nice read for any english reader althought the story revolves around a truly international topics moving from a post world war aploclyptic era into a digital age surrvived by ten revoltionaries at the dawn of the information age.

    This is a clever tale told from a cold perspective that could warm just about any rational thinkers idea that: life will prevade thought and human experience and give birth and rebirth to or simple logical imagination if such a thing exsisted.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2014

    Jamie 1/9/14

    So funny pres yes if you agree.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2013

    Informative

    Informative, but not an easy read. One needs to be familiar with technical terminology to get the most out of this book,

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted June 23, 2013

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    Posted January 6, 2013

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    Posted April 13, 2012

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