What would life be like with no computer? It’s difficult to picture but it wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t have them. Now most people carry multiple computers, i.e. laptops, e-readers, and smartphones.
George Dyson, a science historian, asks how we went from having no computers to having many in such a brief time period in his book, Turing’s Cathedral.
Dyson has a unique vantage point that makes him the ideal author for this book. He’s the son of a top scientist, Freeman Dyson and, as a result, has spent a lot of his years at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. The Institute was home to the globe’s most accomplished scientific minds – included Einstein’s – as they were in the midst of building and operating the first digital computers with the guidance of scientist Josh von Neumann.
If you read Turing’s Cathedral it will surprise you at just how much chance was involved in the creation of the machines that let to computers. The book not only highlights the development of the computer but also the personalities involved at the Princeton Institute. They weren’t always on the same page but were able to produce the first digital computer nevertheless.
Like all great projects, this one featured more than its share of rivalries, fall-outs, and, not surprisingly, salty language. The individuals powering this project were geniuses. They weren’t saints. The book also covers the important ethical issues the creators of the computer faced by the close relationship of their computer work to the U.S. nuclear weapons project.
You may have the notion that a history book about computers won’t just be dry but also full of complicated jargon. This is not true with Turing’s Cathedral; nearly everybody who use computers will find this book fascinating. Which is a lot of people these days.