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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

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

If you are looking for information about Alan Turing, look elsewhere. The title is a metaphor.

The Nazis did the U.S. a huge favor with their boorish and stupid racial policies. Many prominent Jews were brilliant mathematicians and physicists, and when the “cleansing” of universities began by the Nazis, people like Van Neumann, Einstein, and many others fled to the United States where they were of immense assistance in the development of the atomic bomb.

This book is about the origins and development of the digital age and Dyson spends considerable space on the people and institutions key to that development.  The Princeton Institute for Advanced Research, for example, under Abraham Flexner and Oswald Veblen, recruited many of these refugees who helped build the Institute into one of the premier research institutions. I suppose it all has special interest for me as my life span parallels the development of the computer.  I was born in 1947.  In the 7th grade I became fascinated by ham radio and electrons and studied the intricate workings of the vacuum tube, a device for which I still have some reverence.  I’m still dismantling and messing with the insides of computers.

Ironically, given the book’s title, John Van Neumann takes center stage with Turing playing only a peripheral role.  Van Neumann’s interest in digital computation was apparently sparked by reading Turing’s seminal article. “On Computational Numbers” that led him to the realization of the importance of stored program processing.

What Turing did that was so crucial was to take Gödel’s proof of the incompleteness theorem that permitted numbers to carry two meanings.  Turing took that and thought up the paper tape computer that produced both data and code simultaneously.  That realization alone was fundamental in providing the basic building block for the computer.

The builders had conflicting views of the incredible computational power they had unleashed that was to be used for both ill and good.  Van Neumann recognized this: “ A tidal wave of computational power was about to break and inundate everything in science and much elsewhere, and things would never be the same.”

It would have been impossible to develop the atomic bomb without the computational abilities of the new “computers.”  So naturally, the Manhattan Project is covered along with the influence of the evil Dr. Teller (I must remember to get his biography,) who was the character (Dr. Strangelove) brilliantly played by Peter Sellers.  After the war, Teller pushed very hard for the development of the “super-bomb” even though he knew, or must have known, that his initial calculations were flawed because he didn’t have the computational power to do them completely.  One number that I questioned was the Dyson’s reporting that when the Russians exploded a three-stage hydrogen bomb in 1961, the force released was equivalent to 1% of the sun’s power.  That sounds wildly improbable.  Anyone able to contradict number?

Some interesting little tidbits.  One computational scientist refused to use the new VDTs, preferring to stick with punched cards (he obviously never dropped a box of them) which seemed far more tangible to him than dots on a screen.  I guess fear of new technology is not reserved for non-scientists.

One of the major and very interesting questions addressed by Turing and reported on in the book is what we now call artificial intelligence.  When we use a search engine are we learning from the search engine? or is the search engine learning from us? It would appear currently the latter may be true.  Clearly, the search engines have been designed to store information and use that information to learn things about us both as a group and individually. I suspect that programs now make decisions based on that accumulation of knowledge.  Is that not one definition of intelligence?   (I will again highly recommend a book written and read quite a while ago that foresaw many of these issues:  The Adolescence of P-1 by Thomas Ryan (1977)** .  Note that Turing talked about the adolescence of computers and likening them to children.)

Some reviewers have taken Dyson to task for emphasizing abstract reasoning that went into the development of the computer while downplaying the role of electrical engineers (Eckert and Mauchly) in actually building the things.  I’ll leave that argument to others, not caring a whit for who should get the credit and being in awe of both parties.  On the other hand, the book does dwell more on the personalities than the intricacies of computing.  There are some fascinating digressions, however, such as the examination of digital vs analog and how the future of computing might have been altered had Vann Neumann not tragically died so young as he had a great interest in biological computing and the relationship of the brain to the computer.

**For a plot summary of The Adolescence of P-1 see

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