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Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (Penguin Press Science) by [Dyson, George]
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Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (Penguin Press Science) Kindle Edition

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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

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 6466 KB
  • Print Length: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (1 March 2012)
  • Sold by: Penguin UK
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0076O2VXM
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Screen Reader: Supported
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #185,289 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.9 out of 5 stars 153 reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Breathtaking in scope, depth, and originality 7 May 2016
By Michael J. Edelman - Published on
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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.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The origins of my work environment 11 March 2016
By James A. Lewis - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I entered the digital computer world as an enlisted cryptographic in 1964. By that date the most meaningful events described in this book had transpired. I spent my working life in the lower orders of data processing -- first as a hardware technician, then analysis salesman and finally as a designer. Reading this book was mesmerizing because it revealed where and how my workplace originated. For a student of history though, I was thrilled by our country's CULTURAL robbery of Europe's finest intellectuals at the time that both we and the dictators needed them most. Our luck and the barbarians stupidity.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good coverage of an important period in the history of computing 13 May 2017
By Jack Murray - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is an excellent introduction to the early years of computers as seen from the vantage point of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton and the fascinating people who worked there during the thirties and WWII. The participation of these figures, and others, in the development of the atom bomb is examined with more than a hint of the crucial issue of the conflict between secrecy and open sharing, between the commercial (e.g., patents) and computers as vehicles for pure research or free public usage. George Dyson is a clear and gifted writer, commands the fields he treats, and has a leg up on the Institute, given that he grew up there with his celebrated father Freeman Dyson. By the way, though, Turing is a background figure in the book, though of course a vital one.
5.0 out of 5 stars Making a Minor Effort to Provide This Book the Recognition it Deserves 6 May 2017
By Aran Joseph Canes - Published on
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I read this book several years ago, but I feel it didn't get all of the attention it deserved. Dyson manages to weave together the stories of the birth of the computer, the beginning of the Institute for Advanced Study and the personalities of some of the leading scientists of the 20th century all in one compelling narrative.

The prose is engaging but written for fellow scientists or, at least, the scientifically literate. Because of the fact that Dyson chose to write the book above the level of popular science his book didn't go viral in the way of, say, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

However, even though I read this book several years ago, I can say I've rarely had the pleasure of reading a finer work since. Highly recommended for a select kind of reader.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Birth of the Computer 13 February 2017
By Amazon Customer - Published on
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Computers are now so omnipresent it is difficult to imagine how they first came into being. Read this book to discover the people, institutions, and historical forces that were present at the birth of the first computers. As one might expect, the story is full of remarkably odd people, and unexpected twists and turns.