Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe

Patricia Fara reads a personality-driven account of the mid-20th-century computer revolution

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Reviewed by: Patricia Fara
Author: George Dyson
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £25

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The champion of George Dyson’s melodramatic history is not Alan Turing but the Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann, portrayed here as a lovable eccentric genius who founded the digital age by building the world’s first computer with high-speed
random-access storage (and if that leaves you gasping, you could do no better than turn to Turing’s Cathedral for a lucid explanation).

On arriving at Los Alamos to work on the atomic bomb, von Neumann reported to his wife that “computers are, as you suspected, quite in demand here”. He was referring not to cupboards full of wiring, but to physicists’ wives, recruited for their deft handling of
desk calculators.

By 1953, ten years later and in Princeton, he had engineered MANIAC (Dyson provides a full translation), the programmable computer whose first task was a 60-day calculation of thermonuclear reactions. Depending on your point of view, von Neumann was either the villain responsible for the hydrogen bomb or the hero who helped the United States win the Cold War.

Packed with anecdotes and character sketches, Turing’s Cathedral provides a fascinating and unusual perspective on computer development in the United States. Rather than discussing the introduction of stored-program computers in isolation, Dyson explores how their history is intertwined with those of two other postwar innovations: thermonuclear weapons and the double helix structure of DNA.

Turing himself is allocated only 20 pages, but he has made it to the front cover because 2012 is the centenary of his birth.

In Dyson’s curious religious imagery, Turing was the key intermediary between ‘Old Testament’ binary prophets (such as Gottfried Leibniz) and those of the ‘New Testament’, whose leader was von Neumann. The book ends with the discovery of Dyson’s ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ – handwritten sheets of numerical code specifying the behaviour of
self-propagating digital organisms, the ancestors of computer viruses.

In contrast, Turing himself turned away from Christianity after his closest friend died as a teenager. Later on, his theoretical constructions of a machine that can think paralleled attempts by materialist biologists to create life from inanimate chemicals.

Although well-concealed, perhaps the true subject of this book is its author, who is the son of the Princeton mathematician Freeman Dyson.

The title of the first chapter is ‘1953’, which happens to be the year of George Dyson’s birth. At the age of 16, he fled from New Jersey’s academic hothouse to dwell in a Canadian tree-house and indulge his passion for kayaking, but as a child, he presumably met or at least heard about many of the characters featured here.

Their personal stories, often going back to immigrations a couple of generations earlier, feature prominently in Dyson’s account. His father materialises towards the end, publicly fulminating in 1970 against the vengeful ‘snobs’ who dismantled his computer group after von Neumann died – perhaps a leitmotif that had long accompanied family meals in the Dyson household.

Turing predicted that by the end of the 20th century, the notion that computers think would be commonplace. But rather than computers becoming like humans, we have adapted ourselves to suit them, obediently waiting while they update their settings, priding ourselves on circumventing their restrictions, and retreating into virtual realms when reality becomes too hard to cope with.

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Dr Patricia Fara is the author of Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009)