Monday 22 April 2013

Turing's Cathedral

The Origins of the Digital Universe
George Dyson, 2012
(April 2013)

As semi-scholarly works of research go this is quite extraordinarily digressive. It is, in fact, all over the fucking shop. That’s not always a bad thing, in fact often it’s quite interesting, but equally as often it’s a very definite weakness.

This is, notionally, the story of one of the first properly functional computers, the Manhattan Project, and the small(ish) group of engineers, scholars, and programmers who drove and contributed to the two. Alan Turing gets name-checked a couple of times early on but doesn’t really make an appearance until about three-quarters of the way in. In as much as there’s a central character it’s John von Neumann. I can only imagine that the publishers thought Turing and his famous Test would carry more cultural weight and push more copies of the book, but it’s not like von Neumann is without a certain pop-cultural influence.

What you get here is a potted history of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton (I say potted, it’s still got enough room to put down roots that include almost an entire chapter on a battle in the American Revolutionary War that was once fought on the eventual site of the IAS. This is what I mean by digressive), followed by a series of pen portraits of the men and women involved, the vast majority of whom seem to have been émigrés who fled Europe in the face of rising Nazism. It’s hard not to see something of a lesson there for the more stridently anti-immigration and anti-intellectual of today’s politicians.

That observation aside, there’s almost too much here for me to draw out any real conclusions so soon after finishing it. The moral quandaries – or lack thereof – of the participants in the development of nuclear weapons and MAD certainly bear further reflection. It’s a shame that’s not explored in greater depth. As the son of Freeman Dyson (also not without his own cultural influence) the author has clearly had some fairly privileged access to those participants, so it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed that the final few chapters revolve around his increasingly speculative personal musings on artificial life and the probable presence of extra-terrestrials. In the final chapter everyone dies; it’s like Hamlet without the laughs.

It’s still interesting and thought-provoking – it’s still a pretty good book. With greater focus, tighter editing, and at two-thirds the length it could have been a very good one.

The local bookshop I bought this in actually had both American and British editions and for, I think, the first time in my life I chose the American one. That cover might not look like much on screen but it’s got a great matte, slightly rough finish and really evokes the old IBM punch-cards. More importantly, the British edition’s cover is just a fucking mess. A more accurate representation of the contents perhaps, but not nearly as nice to have on your shelf.


  1. Love the cover. LOVE IT!!

    So this is a son who is known because of the father...and the son writes a book?

    That part is NOT original though the book sounds a messed up kinda way.

    1. In fairness, I think he's written a fair bit of stuff previously. Dunno if he got to do that because of his dad or not, but he has at least put in a bit of groundwork.

      I actually think there are quite a few bits in this that'd be right up your street. Can't recommend it all though, more's the pity.