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Turing’s Cathedral

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments


When Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, George Dyson’s history of the famous computer built at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in the late 1940s, was published last March, I resisted it.

I’m a sucker for Institute history. And, of course, for mathematicians. What could be better? On the other hand, could there be a story in the book that I hadn’t read three or four or five times? I feel like I grew up with these characters. Johnny von Neumann (the star of the book, its title notwithstanding). Alan Turing. Stan Ulam. J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Or, from the Institute’s early history, the Bambergers, who acquired a fortune by selling their department store to Macy’s and set out to do good with it by founding a medical school in greater Newark. Abraham Flexner—fresh from revolutionizing medical education in the US—whom they turned to for advice and who proposed an institute for abstract research instead. Oswald Veblen, the Princeton mathematician who helped Flexner with the conception of the Institute. Einstein, one of the founding faculty. Marston Morse. Kurt Gödel. Reading another book about these people and the Institute would be redundant.

But reading Robert Sullivan’s My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78 earlier this month put me in a New Jersey frame of mind. Among his topics is the Battle of Princeton, which took place on what is now Institute and neighboring grounds. And then, two Fridays ago, as I was nearing the book’s end, the Wall Street Journal printed Marc Levinson’s survey of the best business books of 2012. Having enjoyed Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, I trusted him as a guide. My resistance to Turing’s Cathedral weakened when I read:

The Institute for Advanced Study is at once prestigious and obscure. Endowed in 1930 by the Bamberger family, which had owned the eponymous department store in Newark, N.J., the institute grew into an intellectual paradise where selected scholars came to think great thoughts. For a few years after World War II, its bucolic campus in Princeton was an improbable technological hotbed as a group of mathematicians and engineers built one of the first electronic computers and developed the concept of directing the machine’s actions by electronic instructions—what we now call software—rather than by repeated rewiring. In “Turing’s Cathedral,” George Dyson combines careful documentary research with oral history to uncover the story of how the programmable computer came to be.

Levinson confused matters, though, by recommending another history of science and technology set in New Jersey:

The laser; the semiconductor; the mobile phone; the very concept of digital communication: these fundaments of our modern world, and many others, were born in the corridors and cafeterias of Bell Telephone Laboratories. Jon Gertner’s “The Idea Factory” is a spellbinding account of the rise and fall of this remarkable research organization. By focusing on the work of individual scientists and tying their discoveries to the resultant improvements in communication, Mr. Gertner makes his story accessible to the nontechnical reader. As he shows, only the decades-long monopoly enjoyed by its parent, American Telephone & Telegraph Co., made Bell Labs possible. Once a 1982 consent decree began to turn telecommunications into a competitive industry, Bell Labs’ glory days were over. This is a must-read for anyone interested in economic history and innovation—and in whether technological advances will continue to power economic growth.

Three days later, Michiko Kakutani included Gertner’s book in her NYT list of ten favorite books of 2012. Maybe I could quench my thirst for New Jersey history with this and skip Dyson.

A few days ago, I downloaded the free opening portions of both books and started them. Gertner’s book was tempting, but reminded me of a book I had never finished and always intended to return to, Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson, with its overlapping history of the transistor. This tipped the scales in favor of Dyson, whose book I am now five-sixths of the way through.

Turing’s Cathedral turns out to be nothing like what I imagined. For one, it is not a chronological history of the IAS computer. The story jumps back and forth in fits and starts, often starting a chapter with a new character and following that character’s story forward, which may entail taking the story of the computer backward. For another, Dyson emphasizes the role played by the building of the atomic and thermonuclear bombs in spurring the development of electronic computing. The close link between scientists and engineers at Los Alamos and the Institute is a recurring theme. Hardly news, what with Oppenheimer leaving Los Alamos and taking over as IAS director in 1947. But more notable is von Neumann, leaving Hungary behind in the ’30s to come to the Institute as a pure mathematician, passing through Los Alamos during the war, and returning to the Institute as a committed bomb builder.

Whatever else the Institute computer might do, its raison d’être was the calculations necessary for the development of a hydrogen bomb. Humans and calculating machines in tandem could perform the work at Los Alamos for the A-bomb. Greater speed and programmable flexibility were needed for the H-bomb. Thus, military funding came to the Institute. The famous split among Institute faculty for and against the project was not simply a matter of pure and abstract (in math or physics or history) versus applied and concrete. It was the freedom to do research unencumbered by external goals and pressures versus the need to achieve explicit benchmarks to meet external needs.

There’s more than bomb calculations. We learn about the start of meteorological forecasting via computer modeling. Of evolutionary modeling. And there are many interesting characters beyond the famous Institute mathematicians and physicists, such as computer engineer Julian Bigelow, meteorologist Jule Charney, and pioneering computational geneticist Nils Barricelli (who would later spend a few years here at the University of Washington).

Dyson tempts us with glimpses of von Neumann’s two wives, Mariette and Klára. The story of his courtship of Klára, divorce of Mariette, arrangements to get Klára out of Hungary to the US in 1938, and their marriage is stirring. But one wishes for more, especially on learning of Klára’s role as an early, self-taught computer programmer. As for von Neumann himself, here’s a quote about him that Dyson includes from a draft computer history written by electrical engineer Jack Rosenberg.

Johnny used to meet with each of us individually about once a week, asking what we had built, how it worked, what problems we had, what symptoms we observed, what causes we diagnosed. Each question was precisely the best one based on the information he had uncovered so far. His logic was faultless—he never asked a question that was irrelevant or erroneous. His questions came in rapid-fire order, revealing a mind that was lightning-fast and error-free. In about an hour he led each of us to understand what we had done, what we had encountered, and where to search for the problem’s cause. It was like looking into a very accurate mirror with all unnecessary images eliminated, only the important details left.

Judging from Francis Spufford’s review last March in The Guardian, the best awaits me. He begins:

At first sight – and it’s a long first sight, lasting a good 200 of the book’s 340 brilliant and frustrating pages of text – Turing’s Cathedral appears to be a project for which George Dyson has failed to find a form. Ostensibly the story of the building of one of the earliest computers at Princeton in the late 1940s and early 50s, it keeps digressing wildly. The Institute for Advanced Study’s MANIAC gets under construction over and over, in chapter after chapter, only for Dyson to veer off again into the biographical backstories of the constructors, and a myriad of alternative intellectual hinterlands, from hydrogen bomb design to game theory to weather prediction, by way of the café society of interwar Budapest. It’s not that these aren’t relevant. They are; but they aren’t introduced in the cumulative, surreptitiously spoon-feeding way in which good pop-sci writing usually coaxes a linear narrative out of complex material.

If this is a cathedral, it doesn’t have anything as geometrical as a nave. It’s a mass of separate structures joined by spiders’ webs of coloured string. But it isn’t a failure. It isn’t one thing at all. It’s three successes: three separate and different and differently impressive books Dyson might have written, all bizarrely shredded and mixed into a heap whose sorting is left as an exercise for the reader. Some of it is a painstaking oral history of MANIAC, built on an archivist’s certainty that everything is worth rescuing from entropy that can possibly be known about the dawn of the digital computer. …

Some of it is an intellectual biography of MANIAC’s chief architect John Von Neumann and the circle around him, determined to do justice to the polymathic range of his genius, and therefore dipping into everything he contributed to, from bomb design to game theory to robotics. … in comes the third separate thing the book is, a speculative, even visionary account of the philosophy of programming.

This last, marvellous element dominates the end of the book.

I am now getting into this third part. Spufford continues.

Is it worth persisting? Absolutely. Let me give you, appropriately enough, three reasons why.

One: no other book about the beginnings of the digital age brings to life anything like so vividly or appreciatively the immense engineering difficulty of creating electronic logic for the first time; of creating originally, and without a template, the pattern of organisation which has since become absolutely routine, and been etched on silicon at ever smaller micron-distances in chip foundries. …

Two: no other book has engaged so intelligently and disconcertingly with the digital age’s relationship to nuclear weapons research, not just as a moral quandary to do with funding, but as an indispensable developmental influence, producing the conceptual tools that would unlock the intellectual power of the computer. …

Three: no other book – this is where we get visionary – makes the connections this one does between the lessons of the computer’s origin and the possible paths of its future.

High praise. Had I read that to begin with, I never would have imagined that the book might be redundant.

I suppose it’s worth mentioning somewhere along the way that the author is the son of retired IAS faculty member Freeman Dyson, an outstanding physicist and mathematician in his own right. Having grown up there, George writes about Institute life with authority.*

*And, for what it’s worth, I write with a tiny bit of authority myself. Really tiny, having been an IAS member twenty-five years ago, living with my family in Institute housing on von Neumann Drive. And having an office for half of my year there in the ECP (Electronic Computer Project) building, the very structure built (with military funds, as I now know, the IAS chipping in to cover the cost of the brick facade) to house von Neumann’s computer. When visiting the Institute, von Neumann’s daughter Marina would stay in the vacant apartment below ours and we would say hi.

One more thing. Below is the video of a lengthy conversation with Dyson about the book last March at the Computer History Museum.

Categories: Books, Computing, History
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