Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe

George Dyson. Pantheon, $29.95 (432p) ISBN 978-0-375-42277-5
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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 émigré 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 Gödel’s theorem to the Turing machine are too hasty and undeveloped to sink in. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 01/09/2012
Release date: 03/06/2012
Genre: Nonfiction
Open Ebook - 405 pages - 978-0-307-90706-6
Downloadable Audio - 978-0-307-96909-5
Paperback - 401 pages - 978-0-14-101590-3
Hardcover - 401 pages - 978-0-7139-9750-7
Ebook - 432 pages - 978-0-7181-9450-5
Paperback - 401 pages - 978-1-4000-7599-7
Compact Disc - 13 pages - 978-0-307-96906-4
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Audio book sample courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio
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