Saturday, July 25, 2015

Thoughts on Dyson's book Turing's Cathedral - Great read imparting knowledge about people, institutions & technology

Turing's Cathedral is a superb read. It is particularly unique in that it imparts information about three, very different spheres of knowledge: about institutions, about individuals, and about technology. In relation to the first, it relates the history of the Institute for Advanced Study and how this special institution and a confluence of external factors brought together many brilliant mathematicians to Southern New Jersey in the mid 20th Century and how this led to much of the development of the computer we now use. In relation to technical developments, it teaches us a lot about the bottleneck issues in the von Neumann architecture for computers, how a triode works, and what an actual Turing machine is.

In relation to personalities it gives vivid characterizations of many of the early computer protagonists such as von Neumann, Charney (from early weather calculation fame), Turing, Oppenheimer, Teller and so forth. I liked the discussion of the Princeton "alumni" moving off to fields like weather forecasting, crystallography, bomb development and so forth. One of the mysteries of the book to me is why it is entitled "Turing's Cathedral" when it really focuses mostly on von Neumann and his achievements; perhaps a better title might have been von Neumann's pulpit but this is for others to decide.

One interesting way all three spheres came together is in the discussion of the early Monte Carlo calculations worked on by von Neumann and Ulam. The book describes how important they were to establishing the utility of computers and how they were assisted in doing this by von Neumann's wife Klara who it turns out was quite adept at population census calculations -- coincidentally this little known connection proved essential for weapons calculations.

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(Also "Gettysburg Tryptophan Turing")

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