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Turing's cathedral George Dyson.
Turing’s cathedral: The origins of the digital universe.
New York: Pantheon, 2012.
cloth, 401 p., ISBN 978–0–375–42277–5, $US29.95.



I’ve lost count on how many computers are around me. I work on one or two constantly it seems; other relics sit on shelves, hide in closets, awaiting a flip of a power switch. We all accept, even cherish, computers, and made them an integral part of our lives. We cannot imagine a world without them. But there was a point in time and space when computers were not so ubiquitous, when the modern computer, this mechanical and electronic extension of ourselves, did not exist. This wonderful book describes the gestation and birth of the modern computer, the creative culmination of ideas of Alan Turing (1912–1954), John von Neumann (1903–1957), and others, at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J. over six decades ago.

George Dyson’s ambitious and successful work took years to develop, longer than the time required to create the device he so deftly describes. His efforts as a digital paleontologist — examining documentation, technical reports, and correspondence as well as interviewing many involved in the creation of MANIAC (Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator and Computer) at Princeton — result in an exciting and well–woven book. I literally could not put Turing’s Cathedral down, becoming involved in the delicious, very real–life characters gathered for a monumental project to develop the grandfather of all computers we know and love today.

The connections between von Neumann and Turing are both tangible and breath–taking. One illustration in this book to me is sufficient proof: from the Institute’s Library, the well worn, tattered, overly thumbed and heavily studied volume of the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, containing Turing’s “On computable numbers, with an application to the entscheidungsproblem,” published in 1936. Johnny von Neumann essentially made this paper required reading for anyone, it seemed, involved in the birth of MANIAC. All of the other volumes of the Proceedings in the Library seem to have been little consulted in comparison.

The creation of MANIAC was important on so many levels. I was impressed by the “openness” of this project, the ready distribution of ideas and successes in technical reports, letters, and other communications. This openness allowed for the rapid diffusion of MANIAC’s intellectual code, and ultimately lead to those notions appearing in every computing device today. As Dyson points out, “All technical details of the MANIAC and its programming were placed in the public domain, and freely replicated around the world. A series of progress reports were issued that were models of clear thinking and technical detail.” (p. 139) Our notions of open source, open access, and open exchange of ideas certainly have their origins in important decisions made in the course of creating MANIAC.

MANIAC was the first general purpose scientific computer, the first to tackle huge computational problems. As Dyson points out,

“By mid–1953, five distinct sets of problems were running on the MANIAC, characterized by different scales in time: (1) nuclear explosions, over in microseconds; (2) shock and blast waves, ranging from microseconds to minutes; (3) meteorology, ranging from minutes to years; (4) biological evolution, ranging from years to millions of years; and (5) stellar evolution, ranging from millions to billions of years. All this in 5 kilobytes — enough memory for about one–half second of audio, at the rate we now compress music into MP3s.” (p. 298)

Modern science indeed owes much to MANIAC and its parents. Our ability to understand weather, air traffic, stars, and much else has its origins in those original problems wrestled by MANIAC.

Indeed, Dyson challenges us in this book to re–examine our relationships to computers. I was reminded of Stanislaw Lem’s (1921–2006) machines, devices that could create anything — starting with the letter n. We now have computers that monitor the entire world, that indeed watch everything we do digitally.

“Virtual machines never sleep. Only one third of a search engine is devoted to fulfilling search requests. The other two thirds are divided between crawling (sending a host of single–minded digital organisms out to gather information) and indexing (building data structures from the results). The load shifts freely between the archipelagoes of server farms. Twenty–four hours a day, 365 days a year, algorithms with names such as BigTable, MapReduce, and Percolator are systematically converting the numerical address matrix into a content–addressable memory, effecting a transformation that constitutes the largest computation ever undertaken on planet Earth.” (p. 309)

This digital world, inhabited by hybrids from the imagination of von Neumann, Turing, and Lem, is our world. In order to reckon with this world, we have to recognize its origins. This book should be required reading for anyone owing a computer, anyone using the Internet, anyone playing with a search engine. It is delightful, thought–provoking, and important. — Edward J. Valauskas, Chief Editor and Founder, First Monday. End of article

Copyright © 2012, First Monday.

Book review of George Dyson’s Turing’s cathedral: The origins of the digital universe
by Edward J. Valauskas.
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 3 - 5 March 2012

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