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Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe [Hardcover]

George Dyson
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 Mar 2012

How did computers take over the world? In late 1945, a small group of brilliant engineers and mathematicians gathered at the newly created Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Their ostensible goal was to build a computer which would be instrumental in the US government's race to create a hydrogen bomb. The mathematicians themselves, however, saw their project as the realization of Alan Turing's theoretical 'universal machine.'

In Turing's Cathedral, George Dyson vividly re-creates the intense experimentation, incredible mathematical insight and pure creative genius that led to the dawn of the digital universe, uncovering a wealth of new material to bring a human story of extraordinary men and women and their ideas to life. From the lowliest iPhone app to Google's sprawling metazoan codes, we now live in a world of self-replicating numbers and self-reproducing machines whose origins go back to a 5-kilobyte matrix that still holds clues as to what may lie ahead.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Allen Lane (1 Mar 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0713997508
  • ISBN-13: 978-0713997507
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 24.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 318,753 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


A wise and meticulously researched account of a vital period in our technological history, peopled by remarkable characters painted in the round (Peter Forbes Independent )

Fascinating . . . the story Dyson tells is intensely human, a tale of teamwork over many years and all the harmonies and rows that involves (Jenny Uglow )

This wide-ranging and lyrical work is an important addition to the literature of the history of computing (Economist )

A beautiful example of technological storytelling . . . much more than a chronicle of engineering progress: it includes fascinating digressions into the history and physics of nuclear weapons, the fundamentals of mathematical logic, the mathematical insights of Hobbes and Leibniz, the history of weather forecasting, Nils Barricelli's pioneering work on artificial life and lots of other interesting stuff (John Naughton Observer )

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 preceptive glimpse into its future (W. Daniel Hillis )

At long last George Dyson delivers the untold story of software's creation. It is an amazing tale brilliantly deciphered (Kevin Kelly )

The world he re-creates will enthral scientific romantics . . . an entertaining starting point for anyone wanting to understand how Turing's astonishing ideas became a reality, and how they continue to shape the world we live in today (The Sunday Times )

An engrossing and well-researched book that recounts an important chapter in the history of 20th-century computing (Evgeny Morozov Observer )

Rich in historical insight . . . a timely reminder of why we should care about computers and the endless possibilities they hold (The Times )

About the Author

George Dyson is a historian of technology whose interests include the development (and redevelopment) of the Aleut kayak. He is the author of Baidarka; Project Orion; and Darwin Among the Machines.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
By CatR
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Unlike other reviewers, I was not worried by the fact that this book is not another rehash of the same source material about Alan Turing. Setting his famous paper in some, maybe not the entire, context of the time was illuminating.

I skimmed sections that seemed dense in technical details of valves and command lines, but the stories of wives and women working on computer hardware and programmes, plus the vibrant "work hard, play hard" atmosphere in the various campus-type living arrangements were fascinating. Klari von Neumann's narrative was one of the most engaging for me. I also quite like stories of how institutions are shaped, so I wasn't put off by this strand.

A stand out comment related to the power of computer processing keeping men honest, because we've all seen how powerful computer models can be created and used dishonestly.

The Manchester University Small Scale Experimental Machine or Baby was repeatedly referred to in the same breath as Colossus and thus was a bit confusing. For instance "the core of the computing group from Bletchley Park were continuing from where their work on Colossus had left off". I (unlike the author who counts Max Newman as the core) imagine that the core of the computing group were the ones who actually designed and built the machine; Williams, Kilburn and Tootill who had all been based at the Telecommunications Research Establishment in Malvern. It isn't the most straightforward of family trees, but these vague references don't help to give people their proper credits or to understand why things came about in the way they did.

Kindle-wise, quite a few of the photos at the end seemed to have become separated from their captions on the following page which is a bit annoying, but I don't remember any particularly awful lay out issues.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Oh yes, I well remember the command line... 30 April 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
My first encounter with digital computers was in the late 1960s when I headed up a small design team working in the development of a computer-based remote control/telemetry system to replace the earlier electromagnetic/discrete component systems used by the public utilities. In the ensuing years - although I've occasionally tried - I've never managed to escape completely from the digital universe...

Because of - or perhaps in spite of - this background I found it extremely difficult to review George Dyson's book. The claim on the back cover that the book 'can be read as literature whether or not you have any interest in computers and machine intelligence' is, in my view, grossly misleading and dangerously inaccurate.

For example, we learn on page 301 that (verbatim) "the codes spawned in 1951 have proliferated, but their nature has not changed. They are symbiotic associations of self-reproducing numbers (starting with a primitive alphabet of order codes) that were granted limited, elemental powers, the way a limited alphabet of nucleotide sequences code for an elemental set of aminio acids - with polynucleotides, proteins, and everything else that follows developing from there."

This, I submit, is hardly something that can be read as literature. Although I have a reasonable scientific background I had similar difficulties with sections dealing with Monte Carlo statistical techniques, chaos theory in meteorology and with the theory of self-reproducing automata.
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51 of 58 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Misleading account 8 Mar 2012
The focus of George Dyson's well-written, fascinating but essentially misleading book,'Turing's Cathedral', is curiously not on celebrated mathematician, code-breaker and computer theorist Alan Turing but on his equally gifted and innovative contemporary John von Neumann. Von Neumann, whose extraordinarily varied scientific activities included inter alia significant contributions to game theory, thermodynamics and nuclear physics, is especially associated with the early development of the electronic digital computer (i.e. the 'EDC'), an interest apparently sparked by reading Turing's seminal 1936 paper 'On Computational Numbers' which attempted to systematize and express in mathematical terminology the principles underlying a purely mechanical process of computation. Implicit in this article, but at a very theoretical level, was a recognition of the relevance of stored program processing (whereby a machine's instructions and data reside in the same memory), a concept emanating from the work of mid-Victorian computer pioneer Charles Babbage but which demanded a much later electronic environment for effective realization.

What Mr Dyson insufficiently emphasizes is that, despite a widespread and ever-growing influence on the mathematical community, Turing's paper was largely ignored by contemporary electronic engineers and had negligible overall impact on the early development of the EDC. Additionally, he omits to adequately point out that von Neumann's foray into the new science of electronic computers involved a virtual total dependence on the prior work, input and ongoing support of his engineering colleagues.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Ex cathedra
Dyson tells the story of the computer developed at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, NJ between 1945 and 1951 under the direction of the Hungarian-born mathematician... Read more
Published 22 days ago by Jeremy Walton
3.0 out of 5 stars Some prominent figures in science.
An informative but not overly interesting book. This book would have maximum appeal to someone with a specific interest in prominent figures in the history of science and... Read more
Published 5 months ago by G. HAYWOOD
2.0 out of 5 stars disappointing and rambling
Given the stature and contacts of the author this was a disappointing book. Contains a lot of detail of Von Neumann's contribution to computing and a number of speculative areas. Read more
Published 7 months ago by T. Rossiter
3.0 out of 5 stars The digital revolution
This is a rather frustrating book. The author, like his famous father Freeman Dyson, obviously is interested in, and has detailed knowledge of, a wide variety of scientific and... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Brian R. Martin
2.0 out of 5 stars A good book spoiled by too much padding
Inside this 340 page book of close type there is a really good book waitIng to be released. At present it has far too much padding. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Desec
2.0 out of 5 stars What a mess this book in
I was hoping for something that game me an impression of the excitement that must have accompanied the development of digital computers (even if from a purely USA point of view). Read more
Published 14 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Solid stuff
Rather details and you need to keep reading but this is real recent historical science and advancement. Read more
Published 14 months ago by David Broster
5.0 out of 5 stars Really enjoyed this
As a lifelong techy , I started writing machine code in 1968, I found this background really interesting. Read more
Published 14 months ago by rogerselwood
5.0 out of 5 stars I'm going to keep this book
Combines factual and fascinating history with an excellent first-hand observer's experience. The same acute wonder that Dyson had as a child is transferred to the reader in the... Read more
Published 15 months ago by Cloud watcher
3.0 out of 5 stars Not very satisfying
An interesting account but rather thin, padded by lots of biographical details of minor characters that add little to the narative
Published 15 months ago by banolan
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