Monday, March 17, 2014

Turing's Cathedral

So overall, I'd say that George Dyson's Turing Cathedral gets maybe 3 out of 5 stars.

As a history of some of the first digital computers ever built it's interesting, if somewhat exhaustively detailed.  Contrary to what the title might imply, the book is mostly about John Von Neumann's work at the Princeton Institute for Advanced study and out in Los Alamos.  Turing's invention of computational cryptography at Bletchley Park is mentioned in passing.  Many a tale of mathematical prowess and long hours worked during the camaraderie of the war is told.  One thing made clear is the way early computation was so entwined with the military.  I guess this isn't a huge surprise, nor has it really changed, but it's still interesting to me to see the direction science and mathematics was pushed in by external forces.  Without the urgent need to calculate shockwaves from a bomb blast, the computer might never have existed (or was it inevitable?).  

The book has another, more philosophical side though.  Dyson wants to construe the digital world as another great kingdom of life, complete with evolving and self-reproducing creatures.  The construction of the digital computer is then like the Big Bang of this new universe.  I am totally sympathetic to this idea, and one thing the book does make clear with its ridiculously detailed combing of their notes and archives is how completely Von Neumann, Ulam, Turing, et. al. were on the bus.  Hell, they built the fucking bus, and they had pretty advanced ideas about where it was headed.  Unfortunately, if you are not on the bus this book will not get you there, and if you were already on the bus, there's not sufficient detail (understanding?) to put you in the driver's seat.  There's quite a lot of suggestive analogy thrown around.  And complicated mathematical concepts are brushed over quickly; even if you are somewhat familiar with Godel, Church, and self-reproducing cellular automata you may find that you're not sure you understood the significance of that last paragraph.  You may read it again and still think it's kinda fast and loose, or maybe you just don't know enough about Turing's oracle machines?  

Which sums up the big problem with the book -- who was this written for?  Historians?  Fine, but then why the sci-fi wanderings that start halfway through and derail the story?  Mathematicians?  Hardly.  There's not enough substance and explanation of what are very difficult concepts.  Ray Kurzweil perhaps?  We'd just have to ask his exo-skeleton I guess.  Having too many audiences means that no one is going to go home happy.

The book did mention one curiosity I'd like to find out about.  Hans Alfvén won the 1970 Nobel prize in physics for his work on magnetohdrodynamics (who knew, right?). Turns out he also wrote a sci-fi novel under the pseudonym Olof Johannesson entitled The Tale of the Big Computer: A Vision.  And it sounds like a pretty good one, if Dyson description and excerpts are anything to go by.  Doesn't appear to be in print though?  

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