Turing's Cathedral by George Dyson
The Origins of the Digital Universe

67%

20 Critic Reviews

The chronology of “Turing’s Cathedral” is confusing at times, and Mr Dyson sometimes gets sidetracked by minor details: Kurt Gödel’s visa problems, for example, or the construction and layout of IAS buildings.
-The Economist

Synopsis

“It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence,” twenty-four-year-old Alan Turing announced in 1936. In Turing’s Cathedral, George Dyson focuses on a small group of men and women, led by John von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who built one of the first computers to realize Alan Turing’s vision of a Universal Machine. Their work would break the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things—and our universe would never be the same.
 
Using five kilobytes of memory (the amount allocated to displaying the cursor on a computer desktop of today), they achieved unprecedented success in both weather prediction and nuclear weapons design, while tackling, in their spare time, problems ranging from the evolution of viruses to the evolution of stars.
 
Dyson’s account, both historic and prophetic, sheds important new light on how the digital universe exploded in the aftermath of World War II. The proliferation of both codes and machines was paralleled by two historic developments: the decoding of self-replicating sequences in biology and the invention of the hydrogen bomb. It’s no coincidence that the most destructive and the most constructive of human inventions appeared at exactly the same time.
 
How did code take over the world? In retracing how Alan Turing’s one-dimensional model became John von Neumann’s two-dimensional implementation, Turing’s Cathedral offers a series of provocative suggestions as to where the digital universe, now fully three-dimensional, may be heading next.

 

About George Dyson

See more books from this Author
George Dyson is a historian of technology whose interests include the development (and redevelopment) of the Aleut kayak (Baidarka), the evolution of digital computing and telecommunications (Darwin Among the Machines), and the exploration of space (Project Orion).
 
Published March 6, 2012 by Pantheon. 466 pages
Genres: Computers & Technology, Biographies & Memoirs, History, Science & Math, Religion & Spirituality, Self Help, Education & Reference, Romance, Parenting & Relationships. Non-fiction
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Critic reviews for Turing's Cathedral
All: 20 | Positive: 12 | Negative: 8

Kirkus

Excellent
Reviewed by Kirkus' Reviews on Feb 01 2012

The use of wonderful quotes and pithy sketches of the brilliant cast of characters further enriches the text. 

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NY Times

Excellent
Reviewed by William Poundstone on May 04 2012

“Turing’s Cathedral,” incorporating original research and reporting...is an expansive narrative wherein every character, place and idea rates a digression.

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Guardian

Good
Reviewed by John Naughton on Mar 03 2013

His book is a sprawling, digressive, exhilarating account of how Von Neumann's machine was constructed, of the people who built it and of what it was used for.

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Guardian

Below average
Reviewed by Evgeny Morozov on Mar 24 2012

 Dyson, who spent a decade writing and researching it, bombards the reader with a mind-boggling stream of distracting information that adds little to his tale

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Guardian

Below average
Reviewed by Francis Spufford on Mar 07 2012

At first sight – and it's a long first sight, lasting a good 200 of the book's 340 brilliant and frustrating pages of text – Turing's Cathedralappears to be a project for which George Dyson has failed to find a form. 

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Publishers Weekly

Below average
Reviewed by Publishers' Weekly on Jan 09 2012

Unfortunately, his account of technological innovations is too sketchy for laypeople to quite follow. 

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WSJ online

Below average
Reviewed by Konstantin Kakaes on Mar 03 2012

...too limited in scope to be a definitive history of the computer...

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Globe and Mail

Excellent
Reviewed by Douglas Bell on Mar 16 2012

Turing’s Cathedral is suffused with...moments of insight, quirk and hilarity rendering it more than just a great book about science. It’s a great book, period.

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Globe and Mail

Excellent
Reviewed by Douglas Bell on Mar 16 2012

Dyson’s gift as a narrator is to move seamlessly between the somewhat technical details of the machine’s development (“christened MANIAC for Mathematical and Numerical Integrator and Computer”) and its practical applications.

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The Economist

Below average
Reviewed by The Economist on Mar 10 2012

The chronology of “Turing’s Cathedral” is confusing at times, and Mr Dyson sometimes gets sidetracked by minor details: Kurt Gödel’s visa problems, for example, or the construction and layout of IAS buildings.

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The Independent

Excellent
Reviewed by Peter Forbes on Feb 24 2012

Dyson vividly evokes the dazzling array of mathematical and engineering brainpower assembled at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies.

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The Telegraph

Below average
Reviewed by Manjit Kumar on Mar 23 2012

Faced with the tricky task of balancing technical details with keeping the narrative accessible for the non-computer buff, Dyson ends up probably not giving enough detail to satisfy the aficionado but too much for the lay reader.

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San Francisco Chronicle

Excellent
Reviewed by G. Pascal Zachary on Mar 25 2012

Drawing skillfully on obscure documents and interviews with surviving figures, Dyson presents a charming, if rambling and unself-conscious, account of how highly complex mathematics altered the world irrevocably.

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Express

Excellent
Reviewed by Jenny Uglow on Mar 18 2012

Such questions reverberate through the book, making it a philosophical work as well as a gripping account of ideas and invention.

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Salon

Excellent
Reviewed by Andrew Keen on Mar 16 2012

But the greatest strength of “Turing’s Cathedral” lies in its luscious wealth of anecdotal details about von Neumann and his band of scientific geniuses at IAS.

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New Scientist

Below average
Reviewed by John Graham-Cumming on Mar 07 2012

But in claiming that the IAS machine begat all others, Dyson downplays the influence of UK-based work on computers at that time.

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Tech Republic

Below average
Reviewed by Nicole Bremer Nash on Mar 29 2012

The text is very dense in places, and the subject matter can be dry for readers who are not particularly interested in computers and engineering.

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First Monday

Excellent
Reviewed by Edward J. Valauskas on Mar 05 2012

 I literally could not put Turing’s Cathedral down, becoming involved in the delicious, very real–life characters gathered for a monumental project to develop the grandfather of all computers we know and love today.

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Electrum Magazine

Excellent
Reviewed by Staff at Magazine on Oct 14 2011

George Dyson’s fascinating book exploring our modern science history is engaging, full of human paradox and yet somehow warming the reader to the lives of people who scarcely imagined how great they were.

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The Curious Wavefunction

Above average
Reviewed by Wavefunction on Mar 26 2012

...the book is beautifully written and exhaustively researched with copious quotes from the main characters. It's certainly the most detailed account of the IAS computer project that I have seen.

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Reader Rating for Turing's Cathedral
71%

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