Turing’s Cathedral — George Dyson Explores the Origins of the Digital Universe (Book Acquired, 2.17.2012)

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George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral looks pretty cool. Here’s some copy from publisher Pantheon:

“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.

I spent an hour with the book this morning and found it engrossing. (It was also a reminder that I don’t read enough nonfiction).

Regular readers will know I despise dust jackets—I’d rather see publisher’s put their efforts into handsome but simple hardback covers. Three out of the last four hardbacks to come in have done so, including Turing’s Cathedral:

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Still, the design concept for these books (Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists and Thomas Mallon’s Watergate are the other two) still involve an integration with the dust jacket. I’d like to see the dust jacket dusted, done away with, expired.

Some cool pics from the Dyson:

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