Tuesday , February 27 2024
Today’s digital universe started with one computer in one laboratory in one building, with a tiny five kilobytes of memory.

Book Review: Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson

The multiple tales in Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe take place in America during the days of spies, World War II, the hydrogen bomb, and the century’s most constructive invention: the birth of the computer industry.

A fellow named John Von Neumann and a dozen others, including Albert Einstein, formed the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), at Princeton University and began planning for the future by writing 1’s and 0’s on a sheet of paper.

Yes, today’s digital universe started with one computer in one laboratory in one building, and with a tiny five kilobytes of memory.

As simple as it started, George Dyson’s book generously lists over eighty names of principal characters involved in this technology adventure, including Vannevar Bush, Richard Feynman, Julian Bigelow, and Kurt Gödel, along with Alan Turing, a British logician and cryptologist, creator of the Universal Machine. This creation moved technology beyond the counting machines in use in the early 1940s. It made the difference between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things.

In its simplest form, data is a bit, which can either be a one or a zero. That is the essence of the digital universe, for logic and mathematics. Today, as we dawdle through our days with gigabytes of memory and processing power, we can hardly appreciate that in March 1953 there were exactly 53 kilobytes of high-speed random-access memory in the world. Five of them were in use at the IAS lab at Princeton, 32 kilobytes were divided among eight clones of the IAS computer, and 16 kilobytes were unevenly distributed across six other machines. Without cross-communication, Dyson considers them: “Each island in the archipelago constituted a universe unto itself.”

Alan Turing, on the IAS team, configured machines to read, write, remember and erase marks on tape, in both directions, giving birth to the Universal Computing Machine.

Dyson takes us through the 20th century with a fascinating American history of mathematics at a time when sugar was rationed and super-calculation power was more experiment than science. It was also a time of using accelerated knowledge to help design weapons and power explosives.

As the U.S. was immersed in WW II, there was an urgent need for computing power. Engineers were busy building computers using electro-static storage tubes and vacuum-tube technology, equivalent to modern silicon memory chips. Suddenly the effort involved for a human to calculate ammunition trajectories could be done within minutes, instead of hundreds of hours.

These hand-built, room-size, machines also fostered next-generation nuclear weapons, and led to development of the Internet, the microprocessor and multiple-warhead ICBMs. Soon, the ENIAC computer, occupying a 33 by 55 foot room, built with 500,000 hand-soldered joints, had the power of twenty human processors, and remained in use until 1955.

The work of John Von Neumann and Alan Turing gave birth to software and established principles that would guide the future of computers.

As Alan Turing enters the story, he says goodbye to his family and sails in steerage from London to New York in 1936, heading for Princeton to work with Von Neumann. He carried with him a heavy brass sextant and soon after arrival delivered his 35-page paper, “On Computable Numbers,” said to symbolize the powers of digital machines. The men worked together for two years while Turing completed a fellowship. His paper described a Universal Machine, able to compute any computable number.

Turing’s Cathedral should be required reading for today’s techies, who will delight in every new development along the way, including a high-speed wire drive, coiled via bicycle wheels, running at 90,000 bits per second. A memorable forerunner to the tape cartridges and removable drives that came along in the late 20th century, indeed. As we know today, technology also brought about the ability to conduct computer-assisted weather forecasting, Monte Carlo simulation statistics, and grew exponentially to include many thousands of innovations.

The history of computers and statistics is part of the history of the U.S., WW II, immigration, university life, weather, Los Alamos, and beautiful story telling. Through a well-told story and rare photos, Dyson’s book is both a history lesson and a tribute to the pioneers of technology who changed the world.

About Helen Gallagher

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