Review of Turing’s Cathedral

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital UniverseTuring’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George B. Dyson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is for someone who is interested in the the history of computing, and in particular the early days around WWII when many of the basics were set. Although the title references Turing, and he does receive some attention in this book, the focus is more on John von Neumann and the group at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University. And of course the author is the son of Freeman Dyson, who is a prominent scholar at IAS, and that may have helped in getting access to archival materials.

John von Neumann created the basic architecture of computers as they continue to this day, so the decisions he and his colleagues made still inform our use of computers. And along the way they created many techniques. One in particular that I was interested in was the technique of Monte Carlo simulation. As someone who has taught Statistics to college classes, I was familiar with this technique, but didn’t know the whole history. It was developed as a way to model, in a computer, the results of atomic bomb explosions. And it is clear from this book that the driving force in the development of computers at this time was nuclear explosions. But the book also looks that artificial life experiments and other excursions, even if they were not the main driver.

If you like this sort of thing, it is worth a read.

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