Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe

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Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe

George Dyson


Computers are mathematically pretty powerful, considering the only numbers they use are 0 and 1. That power, of course, stems from binary digital logic, dimly foreseen by Francis Bacon four centuries ago and articulated more clearly by Leibniz several decades later. But the modern computer's ability to exploit that power grew from the mathematical imagination of Alan Turing (SN: 6/30/12, p. 26) in work appearing a few years before World War II.

Dyson's book dives deeply into the postwar development of Turing's ideas under the direction of John von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. The institute's computer, MANIAC, was not the first all-purpose digital electronic computer (that was ENIAC, at the University of Pennsylvania), but in Dyson's telling it was the most influential. MANIAC combined binary numbers representing memory with those representing codes (programming) in a way that persists to the present day. …