Turing's Cathedral

  • by George Dyson
  • Narrated by Arthur Morey
  • 15 hrs and 40 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

Legendary historian and philosopher of science George Dyson vividly re-creates the scenes of focused experimentation, incredible mathematical insight, and pure creative genius that gave us computers, digital television, modern genetics, models of stellar evolution - in other words, computer code.
In the 1940s and '50s, a group of eccentric geniuses - led by John von Neumann - gathered at the newly created Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Their joint project was the realization of the theoretical universal machine, an idea that had been put forth by mathematician Alan Turing. This group of brilliant engineers worked in isolation, almost entirely independent from industry and the traditional academic community. But because they relied exclusively on government funding, the government wanted its share of the results: the computer that they built also led directly to the hydrogen bomb. George Dyson has uncovered a wealth of new material about this project, and in bringing the story of these men and women and their ideas to life, he shows how the crucial advancements that dominated twentieth-century technology emerged from one computer in one laboratory, where the digital universe as we know it was born.


What the Critics Say

“The most powerful technology of the last century was not the atomic bomb, but software - and both were invented by the same folks. Even as they were inventing it, the original geniuses imagined almost everything software has become since. At long last, George Dyson delivers the untold story of software’s creation. It is an amazing tale brilliantly deciphered.” (Kevin Kelly, cofounder of WIRED magazine, author of What Technology Wants)
“It is a joy to read George Dyson’s revelation of the very human story of the invention of the electronic computer, which he tells with wit, authority, and insight. Read Turing’s Cathedral as both the origin story of our digital universe and as a perceptive glimpse into its future.” (W. Daniel Hillis, inventor of The Connection Machine, author of The Pattern on the Stone)


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Turing's vision; Von Neumann's construction

While good coverage and credit is given to Turing for the ideas that he had and the work he did to spark the computer revolution this book is more focused on Von Neumann as the driving force behind creating the machine at the Institute for Advanced Studies, sometimes referred to as MANIAC.

I assume that the book title may have been driven a little by marketing department awareness that Alan Turing has become a commonly known name amongst those with more than passing interest in the history of computing while Von Neumann is yet to gain the 'household name' level of recognition that he deserves.

While the 'Turing Machine' was a stunning intellectual achievement in abstract thinking about the science and mathematics of computing the actual machines that we are using are often, and rightly, described as 'Von Neumann Machines'

If you know the subject well this is a great summary and includes interesting facts that you may well not know about just how things got done. If the way Turing's ideas ended up in the machine you are reading this one is not familiar to you then this is the best way of filling in that gap that I know of.

The pace is good and the tone conversational (this is a history of people and ideas, not a text book) and the delivery is in the upper end of Audible's range.

If you care about how the computer revolution that we are living through got through it's teething stages and got to its feet and started walking then I can highly recommend this as an entertaining and informative way to learn a lot more than I thought I would in a weekend's listening.

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- john

Déjà vu

Reading the “New York Times”, Thursday, August 23rd, 2012 the front page of “Business Day” shows an article about Google called “Search and Replace”. In the same edition, there is an article by Shane Harris on the editorial page, “Giving In to the Surveillance State”. Both articles infer a dystopian future envisioned by Johnny Von Neumann and Alan Turing, the primary geniuses of the computer generation’s beginnings in the middle of the 20th century. "Turing's Cathedral", a history of computer science in the 1940s, is strikingly like the 2012 NYT's articles--“Déjà vu”.

Near the end of George Dyson’s book, a chapter is written about the potential of a computer that can dream, based on an accumulation of all the world’s known publications, communications, and locations, to answer any question about the world that is known by the collective mind of man. Nils Aall Barricelli envisions world domination by artificial intelligence. The entry to that world is “Turing’s Cathedral”, a mansion of the entire world’s information that is being built to be occupied by a wired or wireless connection to human brains.

“Turing’s Cathedral” seems to be more than a church of knowledge and mankind seems to be less than the soul of a machine.
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Book Details

  • Release Date: 03-06-2012
  • Publisher: Random House Audio