Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe from 2012 begins at an unlikely point in history, of William Penn and the US revolutionary war. The narrative choice leads eventually to the Olden Farm, Princeton, where the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) would be established.
This historical prelude also leads the author to compare the explosion of the computing capacity to that of a nuclear reaction—both significant "revolutions" for the 20th century, their histories intertwined.
The book from George (Son-of-Freeman) Dyson is already much heavier than some of those "airport books" I've recently read, but it's still not exceedingly academic.
The IAS era becomes repeatedly sectioned from the angles of different personalities and computational topics, and the invention of ENIAC and EDVAC. The scale of the narrative at times focuses on details of a chosen vacuum tube solution, at other times expanding to the connections and conflicts between personalities and faculties.
Some of the heavy-hitters here are John Von Neumann, Alan Turing, Stanislaw Ulam, Nils Barricelli, Norbert Wiener, Julian Bigelow... Women feature less, but at least Klára Von Neumann gets credit for being one of the "first coders", and not uninformed of the code's substance either.
An image emerges of a nascent digital world. A time when people with experience of using actual digital electronic computers could still be counted in dozens. A bunch of intellectuals gravitated to the topic, their thoughts projecting far ahead of what the computers could actually do.
Computers at War
It is not new to say that war was related to computation in many ways. But it is interesting to read in more detail about the people involved and how the first computers connected to these tasks.
Automated computational approaches were needed for many brute force-calculations, such as firing tables, the nuclear fusion and its optimization, and the development of thermonuclear bombs. Cybernetics arose from the problem of how to predict the airplane motions from the perspective of air defense.
To some extent the topic of weather prediction also connects to war and the choice of the moment of attack. The initial successes led to optimism about predicting weather for longer timescales and to use the knowledge for large-scale weather control. Other themes followed the same pattern: thinking machines, machine life, self-replicating machines, all seemed to portend even more radical changes to human life, all just around the corner.
Clashes emerged from the pure mathematicians' and logicians' attitudes towards engineering sciences and practical problems, which the real tubes-and-steel computers concretely represented. Despite, or because of, these difficulties, a sort of "golden age" of computers took place at the IAS during the war.
“The war had scrambled the origins of new inventions as completely as a message passing through an Enigma machine. Radar, cryptanalysis, antiaircraft fire control, computers, and nuclear weapons were all secret wartime projects that, behind the security barriers, enjoyed the benefit of free exchange of ideas, without concern for individual authorship or peer review.” (258-259)
When it comes to describing the lifestyle and practices at the IAU, the book appears to send a clear message: The brightest mathematical and logical minds of their generation needed their own space, free from direct obligations such as administration and teaching undergraduate studies.
Not insignificantly, through his person and in his position, Von Neumann was a kind of major node between many other intellectuals, directing people to examine the work and findings of others. Von Neumann's political opinions arose from having a first-row seat to the nuclear developments, and these views could be rather brash. The nukes had to be built, as "they" would certainly build them.
Sweet beginnings and bitter endings
Von Neumann's death seems like a passing of a small universe, leaving the mystery whether the singular thinker had something still in his sleeve or if the ideas had been exhausted. Turing's contributions for the war and other hidden developments were recognized much later.
With Von Neumann gone, the high energy collaboration and the mixing of fields in the IAS also diminished rapidly. Many saw their personal interest projects dwindling into obscurity, to be re-invented by others after more practical developments caught up and made possible the reassessment of their original thought.
The widespread computer architecture remained as a child of Turing and Von Neumann. The author is asking why wasn't this more strongly questioned afterwards? It could be considered a massive "legacy" choice that impinges itself on every new platform.
The concepts of writing and reading were influential towards inventing the universal computer. Also, the idea of an "un-erring scribe" was already a component of philosophical debate in mathematics and logic. Practically, data was usually tabulated and inspected piecemeal by human "computers". The digitalization of this task resulted in the electronic computer.
As the author notes, memory cells are largely passive, whereas a super-fast read/write head parses the memory contents one by one. Such computers would already be at some disadvantage when examining photographs. Perhaps multi-threading and recent GPUs have begun to erode the outlines of this architecture, with graphics memory being able to perform operations on itself.
The question is then what definition of "universal" is required—one based on late 19th century understanding of mathematical logic? Or are the other understandings of universality? What is life, what is complexity, and how does it travel across the universe? Are they little green men? Or code, a cypher to be unraveled, so to speak? Where do aliens hide in anyway?
The early days of computing was followed by the task of taming computers into banal office assistants. The book gives some feel about the motivations and lives of these people who worked on and with computers when it was still a highly academic topic and suggestive of a parallel, unlimited alien intelligence.