3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Michael J. Edelman
- Published on Amazon.com
The early history of computing is usually presented in a simple linear fashion: Atonsoff, Mauchley and Eckert, Turing and the Enigma project, Von Neumann, and the post war explosion. That's the way I learned it in college in the 70s, and the way just about every book presents it. It's correct, insofar as it goes, but it leaves out a tremendous amount of richness and detail that George Dyson relates in this book. His narrative consists of over a dozen parallel, interrelated, stories, each concentrating on one person or project, along with how they or it relates to the overall narrative. The story begins with the history of Princeton, New Jersey, and the two men most responsible for the creation of the Institute for Advanced Study: Abraham Flexner, and Oswald Veblen, son of economist Thorsten Veblen. Flexner and the younger Veblen shared a vision of creating a place in which the world's greatest thinkers, able to interact freely and freed from the mundane obligations of teaching and practical applications, would advance the world's knowledge on a heretofore unprecedented scale. In so doing they inadvertently created one of the era's greatest centers for applied research into computing.
Turing and von Neumann make their appearances here, of course, along with Mauchley, Eckert, Oppenheimer, Ulam, Freeman Dyson (the authors' father), and other notables of the era. But Dyson also tells the story of a number of pioneers and contributors to the design, construction, and most of all the theory of computation, who have been overlooked by history. Most remarkable, perhaps, is Nils Barricelli, who could justifiably be called the founder of computational biology. Working in the early 1950s with a computer having less computational power and memory than a modern day sewing machine, he created a one-dimensional, artificial,universe in order to explore the relative power of mutation and symbiosis is the evolution of organisms. His work led to a number of original discoveries and conclusions that would only be rediscovered or proposed decades later, such as the notion that genes originated as independent organism, like viruses, that combined to create more complex organisms.
There's an entire chapter on a vacuum tube, the lowly 6J6, a dual triode created during the war that combined several elements necessary for the creation of a large scale computer: Simplicity, ruggedness, and economy. It fulfilled one of von Neumann's guiding principals for ENIAC: Don't invent anything. That is, don't waste time inventing where solutions already exist. By the nature of its relative unreliability and wide production tolerances relative to project goals, it also helped stimulate a critical line of research, that of how to created reliable systems from unreliable components- something more important now than ever in this era of microprocessors and memory chips with millions and even billions of components on a chip.
The chapter on Alan Turing is particularly good, covering as it does much of his work that has been neglected in biographies and presenting a much more accurate description of his work and his contributions to computational science. The great importance of his conceptual computer- the "Turing Machine"- is not, as is commonly stated in popular works, that it can perform the work of any other computer. It is that it demonstrated how any possible computing machine can be represented as a number, and vice versa. This allowed him to construct a proof that there exist uncomputable strings, I.e., programs for which it could not be determined a priori whether they will eventually halt. This was strongly related to Godel's work on the completeness of formal systems, and part of a larger project to disprove Godel's incompleteness theorem.
What makes this a particularly exceptional book is the manner in which Dyson connects the stories of individuals involved in the birth of electronic computing with the science itself. He does an exceptional job of explaining difficult topics like Godel incompleteness, the problems of separating noise from data, and the notion of computability in a way that the intelligent read who may not have advanced math skills will understand. More importantly, he understands the material well enough to know what are the critical concepts and accomplishments of these pioneers of computing, and doesn't fall into the trap of repeating the errors of far too many popular science writers. The result is a thoroughly original, accurate, and tremendously enjoyable history. Strongly recommended to anyone curious about the origins of computers and more importantly, the science of computing itself.