Sunday, February 8, 2015

Turing's Cathedral

The subtitle for this book by George Dyson is The Origins of the Digital Universe. It is largely a study of major research establishments in the USA, such as the Institute for Advanced Study, established in the twentieth century for the study of advanced science, especially mathematical sciences. Prior to the Second World War a number of prominent scientists left Europe to live and work in America and these became an important part of the teams that worked on improved weapon capabilities during and after the war as well as furthering the development of  what became computer science. One of these men was John von Neumann who was from Hungary.

After the war a group of mathematicians, including von Neumann, worked on building a universal machine such as the one proposed by Alan Turing, an English mathematician. Turing studied for his PhD at Princeton University for two years from 1936 where he worked with von Neumann. With war looming he returned to England where he worked as a code-breaker creating machines to decipher German coded messages. Turing visited New York for a short time during the war and returned again in 1947 but in 1948 he was back working in Manchester.

Meanwhile von Neumann and his team experimented in developing machines, initially following the ideas of Turing's theories and then developing them further. The book therefore looks at the the history of the development of computer science until around 1957 when von Neumann died. As a study of the history of the development of computers during and after the war this is an interesting book, however the story becomes bogged down with technical detail which for the non-technical person is not easy to follow. According to some of the reviews on Goodreads, some of those with technical expertise question the presentation in this book. Never the less, in our current computer age, skimming through the book provides an interesting overview of the early development of computers that we take for granted today.

Review of Turing's Cathedral in New York Times May 4, 2012

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