The era of Alan Turing is one that is full of wonder. The scientists of his world were on the trail of the unimaginable—from splitting the atom to inventing the computer—and had to dream big. One could say that with the Hadron Collider and regular trips to Mars that scientists do the same today, but these accomplishments are set on the shoulders of those who have long demonstrated by a series of firsts that (stealing the words of Walter from the show Fringe), “if you can imagine it, it is at least possible.”
In 1936 Turing imagined the possibility of something that (at that time) appeared outlandish. “It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence,” said Turing, conjuring up the concept we now commonly call a computer.
In a world where we might be unimpressed by our smart phones mere weeks after they come out, there are good reasons to go back and remember this very analog world. For that reason, I’m adding Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (2012, Pantheon) to my TBR. Dyson’s book looks at a group of people at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton who, under the leadership of mathematician John von Neumann, made Turing’s machine real. For more about Turing’s Cathedral, check out a review by Andrew Keen (host of “Keen On,” the popular weekly media and culture show on Techcrunch.com) at Barnes and Noble Review:
But the greatest strength of Turing’s Cathedral lies in its luscious wealth of anecdotal details about von Neumann and his band of scientific geniuses at IAS. Dyson himself is the son of Freeman Dyson, one of America’s greatest twentieth-century physicists and an IAS member from 1948 onward, and so Turing’s Cathedral is, in part, Dyson’s attempt to make both moral and intellectual sense of his father’s glittering and yet severely compromised scientific generation.
Read the full review here and for anyone interested in learning more, I’ve reviewed a related book, Janna Levin’s, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, which is a novel based on the lives of Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel.