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Thursday, March 8, 2012

George Dyson Traces the Origin of the Digital Age in Turing's Cathedral

Posted By on Thu, Mar 8, 2012 at 11:30 AM


As a writer's project, the social, cultural, and technological history of Silicon Valley remains wide open. No cohesive narrative describing the end of agriculture and the rise of the computer industry in the counties of Santa Clara and San Mateo exists. Occasionally an article or book will be written that zooms in on one particular angle or another. Such works include Tom Wolfe's dual profile of Intel's Robert Noyce and transistor designer William Shockley, Two Young Men Who Went West, and Tracy Kidder's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Soul of a New Machine, the subject of which was computer design at Data General in Massachusetts, far from Silicon Valley itself.

George Dyson
  • George Dyson

Science historian George Dyson's new book, Turing's Cathedral, takes us even farther from the Silicon Valley we know today -- back to Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study in the late 1940s. But Dyson's tale couldn't be more germane to the role technology has come to play in our lives. His book is about a team of engineers led by John von Neumann who designed and built the first electronic digital computer, one that used five kilobytes of storage, "less memory than is allocated to displaying a single icon on a computer screen today."

Dyson appears tonight (Thursday, March 8) at the Commonwealth Club.

It's a crucial moment in computer history, and one whose results we see, hear, and interact with on a daily -- if not minute-by-minute -- basis. In Dyson's skilled voice, the story is revelatory and instructive. Dyson is not a writer who has found some darkened corner of history to illuminate merely for the sake of telling an entertaining but ultimately trivial story. Turing's Cathedral is almost certain to become a common reference work for those interested in the development of digital technology.

Alan Turing
  • Alan Turing

It began with the Turing machine. Alan Turing (1912-1954) was an English genius, known for his role as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during World War II and for the great theoretical leaps he made toward what became computer science. Chief among these was the Turing machine, which he first described in a 1936 paper (written when he was 24). He hypothesized a device that could read and interpret symbols on a tape fed through it based upon a preset table of rules. A Turing machine simulates the logic of computer algorithms.

John von Neumann
  • John von Neumann

It wasn't until John von Neumann and his Princeton team went to work that the Turing machine was created. As Dyson points out, the project ultimately found theoretical and practical connections to two near-simultaneous developments: the identification of DNA and the making of the hydrogen bomb. In the case of the latter, computer models that showed the destructive power of increasingly powerful explosions helped curb their very development. In other words, the still-expanding applications of the Turing machine include nuclear proliferation as well as the ongoing struggle for nuclear disarmament.

George Dyson appears at the Commonwealth Club tonight (Thursday, March 8) at 6 p.m. Admission is $7-$20.

Follow Casey Burchby and SF Weekly's Exhibitionist blog on Twitter.

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Casey Burchby


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