Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Turing's Cathedral, by George Dyson

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

George Dyson's history of the computer covers the key mathematicians and scientists whose genius brought this extraordinary machine to the world, and has much background information on how it was the US military who commissioned it.

This ‘history of the computer’ by George Dyson concentrates on the group of scientists (and the vibrant interchange of their ideas) that led to the first digital computer. Most of the book’s narrative centres around the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) at Princeton, New Jersey, where this group of gifted mathematicians and scientists worked. Mostly Turing’s Cathedral is the story not of the British mathematician Alan Turing, but John von Neumann, the Hungarian-American mathematician and physicist.

The first electronic computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC), was created in 1946. It was financed by the US Army and its purpose was to calculate artillery firing tables for the United States Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory. When a bomb exploded, every bit of its trajectory had to be mapped to try and make it as effective and controlled as possible. The reason the army needed to commission such a computer was the exceedingly long time taken to do these computations manually. The army had a lot of data to process. To cut a long story short, the ENIAC was needed as a matter of urgency in the advancing of nuclear war technology. As noted in Eric Schlosser’s excellent Command and Control, the internet and computer systems we enjoy today are a direct legacy of the cold war, with its need for powerful computing capacity.

Two quotes from the book encapsulate this perfectly:

"'It is an irony of fate,' observes Francoise Ulam, 'that much of the high-tech world we live in today, the conquest of space, the extraordinary advances in biology and medicine, were spurred on by one man's monomania and the need to develop electronic computers to calculate whether an H-bomb could be built or not'". 

'First-generations electronic computers fostered first-generation nuclear weapons, and next-generation computers fostered next-generation nuclear weapons, a cycle that culminated in the Internet, the microprocessor, and the multiple-warhead ICBM.'

This central figure of John von Neumann is an interesting one in this light. He was very much what you’d describe today as a ‘hawk’ in political terms, and an advocate of preventive nuclear war. He was drawn to the military and appears to have been pretty much an emotional blank.

While this book contains much fascinating material, I found it a bit of a hard slog. I very much wanted to enjoy it more, but struggled to concentrate, especially near the end. The two main problems are that its organisation is a bit of a shambles. It flits all over the place and is hard to piece together as a narrative. Secondly, a lot of the technical detail is next to impossible to follow, especially if you’re like me, with no aptitude for mathematics. Some of the sentences I had absolutely no hope of deciphering without finishing a degree in computer science. If you’re a boffin in this area, you’ll no doubt find it much easier (and probably more interesting). But for the common reader, it throws up a barrier of complexity.

That’s a shame, because the story of the electronic computer and its military origins is a fascinating one. Despite these caveats, there is much that I did learn from the book, and it has whetted my appetite to read further and fill in the missing gaps of my knowledge.

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, by George Dyson. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780141015903  RRP: $22.99