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Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson (review)
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The title of the book notwithstanding, the protagonist of George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe is not the English mathematician Alan Turing, but rather the Hungarian polymath John von Neumann. Widely celebrated by historians of science for his contributions to physics, mathematics, economics, and computer science, von Neumann is less well-known among the general public. Here, Dyson provides a concise and compelling biography that manages to humanize and, more impressively, make comprehensible the deep personal and intellectual connections between the wide-ranging interests and activities of this fascinating individual.

A Jewish émigré who resigned his position from a German university in the 1930s, von Neumann relocated to the newly founded Princeton Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) and threw himself into the war effort on behalf of the US, crisscrossing the country repeatedly as he circulated between Princeton, Los Alamos, Philadelphia (where he was involved with the ENIAC project), Poughkeepsie, New York (where he served as a consultant to IBM), and seemingly every other major site of wartime techno-scientific development. Dyson makes excellent use of von Neumann’s uncanny instinct to be “always willing to go where the action was” to navigate the reader through the complex web of academia, industry, and the military that characterized the early era of electronic computing.

The real subject of this book, however, is not a person at all, but rather a machine. Immediately following the end of the war, von Neumann leveraged his status and connections into a commitment by the IAS to build an electronic computer. The immediate motivation for doing so was von Neumann’s ongoing collaboration with Los Alamos. During the war, his need to solve large numbers of hydrodynamic equations for blast calculations had lead him to the pioneering ENIAC project, and in the early Cold War race to build a hydrogen bomb, this military imperative became even more pressing.

But von Neumann also had a larger, more ambitious agenda in mind. The real significance of building computers, of “accelerating approximating and computing mathematics by factors like 10,000 or more,” argued von Neumann, “lies not only in that one might do in 10,000 times less problems which one is now doing … but rather in that one will be able to handle problems which are considered completely unassailable at present” (page 85). It is this new mode of doing science through simulation that Dyson is most interested in, and much of the last third of the book attempts to make a connection between von Neumann’s work on the IAS computer and later developments in computational biology. The IAS computer, Dyson argues, represents the true origins of modern computing, and von Neumann was first able to realize the vision of Alan Turing’s Universal Machine.

Dyson’s rich description of the history of the IAS computer is this book’s most important contribution. The son of the physicist Freeman Dyson, George Dyson grew up in Princeton, and he makes great use of his insider knowledge and connections to paint a vivid and intimate portrait of Princeton in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Princeton IAS, founded in the 1930s by the mathematician Oswald Veblen and the educational reformer Abraham Flexner with money from the Bamberger department store fortune, was specifically designed as a place for brilliant minds to pursue unconventional research agendas. IAS was, in the words of Flexner (who was also its first president), to be “paradise for scholars, who like poets and musicians, have won the right to do what they please” (page 30). Veblen was its first appointed professor, Albert Einstein its second, and John von Neumann its third.

Throughout the 1930s, Flexner and Veblen transformed the institute into a refuge for Jewish intellectuals fleeing from anti-Semitism in Europe (as well as from the less-virulent, more local strains found at the nearby Princeton University). By the end of the 1940s, IAS had become one of the leading centers for research in mathematics, economics, and the social sciences. A curious mix of quaint, small-town isolation and cutting-edge cosmopolitan techno-science, Princeton in this period provided fertile ground for von Neumann to realize his vision...

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