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Turing's cathedral : the origins of the digital universe / George Dyson.

By: Dyson, George, 1953-.
Material type: materialTypeLabelBookPublisher: New York : Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., 2012Edition: 1st Vintage Books ed.Description: xxii, 401 p. : ill. ; 21 cm.ISBN: 9781400075997 (pbk.).Subject(s): Von Neumann, John, 1903-1957 | Turing, Alan Mathison, 1912-1954 | Computers -- History | Turing machines | Computable functions | Random access memoryDDC classification: 004.5/3 Summary: Presents the history of the invention of computers, describing the collaboration of John von Neumann and his colleagues as they worked together to create the first computer, an event which led to the hydrogen bomb and the birth of the digital age.
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Default Sunshine Library (DIY)
Non-fiction 004.5 DYSO Issued 28/07/2019 I7859109
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Includes bibliographical references (pages 341-377) and index.

Presents the history of the invention of computers, describing the collaboration of John von Neumann and his colleagues as they worked together to create the first computer, an event which led to the hydrogen bomb and the birth of the digital age.

Excerpt provided by Syndetics

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. Excerpted from Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Reviews provided by Syndetics

Library Journal Review

Dyson's (Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship) history of the first computer is a compelling and readable narrative. Under the leadership of John von Neumann, researchers at the Institute of Advanced Study in New Jersey built the first working computer. The book details each of the principal scientists and their part in this grand scheme. Chapter by chapter, readers are introduced to more than 70 individuals, each of whom played a unique role in the project. Even Princeton University gets its own chapter. The novelistic structure of the book makes it more entertaining than a typical, chronological history text, though at times also more difficult to follow. Dyson often has newly introduced persons interact with other figures who do not appear until later chapters, which will make reading more difficult for those who are not already familiar with this topic. Verdict Recommended for readers interested in the history of computers, history of science during World War II, and modern American history.-Dawn Lowe-Wincentsen, Oregon Inst. of Technology, Portland (c) Copyright 2012. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publishers Weekly Review

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 emigre 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 Godel's theorem to the Turing machine are too hasty and undeveloped to sink in. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Science and technology historian Dyson writes a superb history of early computing in the US. In 1945, John von Neumann began a secret project at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, to build a Turing universal machine known as the MANIAC (Mathematical and Numerical Integrator and Computer). The MANIAC was "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 endeavor would last until July 15th, 1958. Dyson includes a variety of wonderful departures from the MANIAC story--the founding and evolution of the IAS, participants' backstories and their post-project lives, Monte Carlo methods as "emergency first aid," early weather forecasting, and episodes from the atomic and thermonuclear bomb programs. Resonating themes in the MANIAC story include the importance played by engineers, their impact on the IAS, and how much modern computing is indebted to the MANIAC. The author made extensive use of primary sources including over 10,000 pages from the IAS's Electronic Computer Project and hours of interviews. Dyson's Darwin among The Machines (CH, Nov'97, 35-1572) is an earlier related work. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. M. Mounts Dartmouth College

Booklist Review

Many sweeping histories of the computer revolution have already been written, tracing the origins of today's digital landscape back to the ancient Sumerian abacus, yet few are as thorough as this fascinating account from science-historian Dyson. Prior to the 1940s, mechanical devices like slide rules could solve equations or yield simple yes or no answers. It wasn't until a team of mathematicians and engineers led by John von Neumann convened in Princeton in 1945 that the first primitive random-access-memory computer, known as ENIAC, was born. Dyson draws on a wealth of long-hidden archival material to tell the full story of this breakthrough and its eccentric masterminds, including now-legendary figures such as Kurt Godel and Richard Feynman. The most eye-opening facet of ENIAC's creation is just how dependent it was on the same government program that funded the hydrogen bomb. Despite a plethora of technical explanations, Dyson's prose is never tedious as he sheds illuminating light on the genesis and evolution of our ubiquitously computerized world.--Hays, Carl Copyright 2010 Booklist

Kirkus Book Review

Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 19571965, 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 Gdel 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.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

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