Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe 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.