Fri 23 Mar, 2012 04:25 pm
Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe
by Deckle Edge
Publication Date: March 6, 2012
“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.
“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
About the Author
George Dyson is a historian of technology whose interests include the development (and redevelopment) of the Aleut kayak (Baidarka), the evolution of digital computing and telecommunications (Darwin Among the Machines), and the exploration of space (Project Orion).
By Ashutosh Jogalekar "Sciencecat" (Cambridge, MA USA)
The physicist John Wheeler who was famous for his neologisms once remarked that the essence of the universe could be boiled down to the phrase "it from bit", signifying the creation of matter from information. This description encompasses the digital universe which now so completely pervades our existence. Many moments in history could lay claim as the creators of this universe, but as George Dyson marvelously documents in "Turing's Cathedral", the period between 1945 and 1957 at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton is as good a candidate as any.
Dyson's book focuses on the pioneering development of computing during the decade after World War II and essentially centers on one man- John von Neumann. Von Neumann is one of the very few people in history to whom the label "genius" can authentically be applied. The sheer diversity of fields to which he made important contributions beggars belief- Wikipedia lists at least twenty ranging from quantum mechanics to game theory to biology. Von Neumann's mind ranged across a staggeringly wide expanse of thought, from the purest of mathematics to the most applied nuclear weapons physics. The book recounts the path breaking efforts of him and his team to build a novel computer at the IAS in the late 1940s. Today when we are immersed in a sea of computer-generated information it is easy to take the essential idea of a computer for granted. That idea was not the transistor or the integrated circuit or even the programming language but the groundbreaking notion that you could have a machine where both data AND the instructions for manipulating that data could be stored in the same place by being encoded in a common binary language. That was von Neumann's great insight which built upon the idea of Alan Turing's basic abstract idea of a computing machine. The resulting concept of a stored program is at the foundation of every single computer in the world. The IAS computer practically validated this concept and breathed life into our modern digital universe. By present standards its computing power was vanishingly small, but the technological future it unleashed has been limitless.
Dyson's book excels mainly in three ways. Firstly, it presents a lively history of the IAS, the brilliant minds who worked there and the culture of pure thought that often looked down on von Neumann's practical computational tinkering. Secondly, it discusses the provenance of von Neumann's ideas which partly arose from his need to perform complex calculations of the events occurring in a thermonuclear explosion. These top-secret calculations were quietly run at night on the IAS computer and in turn were used to tweak the computer's workings; as Dyson pithily puts it, "computers built bombs, and bombs built computers". Von Neumann also significantly contributed to the ENIAC computer project at the University of Pennsylvania. Thirdly, Dyson brings us evocative profiles of a variety of colorful and brilliant characters clustered around von Neumann who contributed to the intersection of computing with a constellation of key scientific fields that are now at the cutting edge.
There was the fascinating Stan Ulam who came up with a novel method for calculating complex processes - the Monte Carlo technique - that is used in everything from economic analysis to biology. Ulam who was one of the inventors of thermonuclear weapons originally used the technique to calculate the multiplication of neutrons in a hydrogen bomb. Then there was Jule Charney who set up some of the first weather pattern calculations, early forerunners of modern climate models. Charney was trying to implement von Neumann's grand dream of controlling the weather, but neither he nor von Neumann could anticipate chaos and the fundamental sensitivity of weather to tiny fluctuations. Dyson's book also pays due homage to an under-appreciated character, Nils Barricelli, who used the IAS computer to embark on a remarkable set of early experiments that sought to duplicate evolution and artificial life. In the process Barricelli discovered fascinating properties of code, including replication and parasitism that mirrored some of the great discoveries taking place in molecular biology at the time. As Dyson tells us, there were clear parallels between biology and computing; both depended on sequences of code, although biology thrived on error-prone duplication (leading to variation) while computing actively sought to avoid it. Working on computing and thinking about biology, von Neumann anticipated the genesis of self-reproducing machines which have fueled the imagination of both science fiction fans and leading researchers in nanotechnology.
Finally, Dyson introduces us to the remarkable engineers who were at the heart of the computing projects. Foremost among them was Julian Bigelow, a versatile man who could both understand code and fix a car. Bigelow's indispensable role in building the IAS computer brings up an important point; while von Neumann may have represented the very pinnacle of abstract thought, his computer wouldn't have gotten off the ground had Bigelow and his group of bright engineers not gotten their hands dirty. Great credit also goes to the two lead engineers on the ENIAC project, J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, who were rather unfairly relegated to the shadows and sidetracked by history. Dyson rightly places as much emphasis on discussing the nitty-gritty of the engineering hurdles behind the IAS computer as he does on its lofty mathematical underpinnings. He makes it clear that the ascendancy of a revolutionary technology requires both novel theoretical ideas as well as fine craftsmanship.
All these accounts are supplemented with gripping stories about weather prediction, the US thermonuclear program, evolutionary biology, and the emigration of European intellectuals like Kurt Godel and von Neumann to the United States. My only complaint about the book is that it focuses too heavily on von Neumann and the IAS. Thus Dyson says relatively very little about Turing himself, about pioneering computing efforts at Manchester and Cambridge (the first stored-program computer in fact was the Manchester "Baby" machine) and about the equally seminal development of information theory by Claude Shannon. James Gleick's "The Information" and Andrew Hodges's "Alan Turing: The Enigma" might be useful complements to Dyson's volume.
Notwithstanding these gripes, the book is beautifully written and exhaustively researched with copious quotes from the main characters. It's certainly the most detailed account of the IAS computer project that I have seen. If you want to know about the basic underpinnings of our digital universe, this is a great place to start even with its omissions. All the implications, pitfalls and possibilities of multiple scientific revolutions can be connected in one way or another to that little machine running quietly in a basement in Princeton.