Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe By George Dyson, Pantheon, $29.95
The first hydrogen bomb, code named Ivy Mike, exploded on November 1, 1952, at the surface of a small island in Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific. The blast of the 82-ton cracker, which had to be ignited by an atom bomb in the first place, measured the blast of 10,400,000 tons of TNT and could have blasted some 750 Hiroshimas. The heat vaporized 80 million tons of coral, leaving a crater 2,100 meters wide and 55 meters deep, ‘large enough to hold 14 buildings the size of the Pentagon’, as an official record put it. Elugelab, an entire island, vanished from the ocean.
The worst fallout of the explosion was the arms race between the United States of America and the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. True, it was triggered by the Soviet atom bomb explosion in 1949, which was made possible by the knowhow stolen from the US. But if the US had listened to some of its scientists, who were against the idea of a deadlier bomb, the world would have been a much safer place .
As the legendary physicist Niels Bohr claimed, the opposite of a profound truth is also a profound truth. He might have said this to explain the seemingly nonsensical behaviour of the subatomic particles, but his remarkable realization is valid in the realm of technology also. If the hydrogen bomb is the ultimate example of humanity’s fetish for self-destruction, it is also the harbinger of the most useful ingredient of modern living — computers. But for that bomb we wouldn’t have had our laptops, smartphones and tablets. Turing’s Cathedral traces the birth of the digital universe in the tumultuous days after World War II.
Modern computers are such a curious mélange of mathematical logic and engineering tools that it is futile to try and single out the inventer. At the level of ideas the genesis of these machines can be traced back 400 years ago. In 1623 Sir Francis Bacon suggested that a 1 and a 0 (converted, centuries later, to an ‘on’ and ‘off’ condition in an electrical circuit) can generate a code for almost everything. Gottfried Wilhlem von Leibniz in the 1670s, transformed that binary system into a handy tool for logical manipulations. Then, in 1936, came the masterstroke from a 24-year-old student of Cambridge University. Alan Turing wasn’t thinking about computers; rather, he wanted to find out if all mathematical statements could be proved to be true, false or undecidable. He concluded that there would always be some statements for which no such decision was possible. The conclusion entailed the imagination of a machine that can emulate logic.
Invited to deliver a lecture, technology historian George Dyson visited the Google headquarters in 2005. He was astounded by the activities underway at the digital behemoth. Dyson was reminded of Turing’s prophetic words envisaging the yet-to-be-born computers. The visionary had imagined computers being ‘mansions for the souls that He creates’. Cyber giants like Google, Dyson surmised,were not mere mansions but Turing’s cathedrals.
Though featured on the cover beneath the dust jacket, Turing isn’t the hero of Dyson’s story, and rightly so. Turing might have imagined the computer, but he didn’t build one. That was done by a handful of men on both sides of the Atlantic. And Dyson chooses the most charismatic of them all: John-Louis von Neumann. Turing and von Neumann, he writes, were as apart as it was possible to get. Turing was usually unkempt (his mother described him as ‘slovenly’); Von Neumann rarely appeared in public without a business suit (at his doctoral examination the mathematician David Hilbert asked but one question, ‘Pray, who is the candidate’s tailor?’). Turing’s speech was hesitant, as if words couldn’t keep pace with his thoughts; Von Neumann spoke freely and with great precision. Turing stayed in hostels and was an athlete (but for his injury, he would have joined the British Olympic team for the London games in 1948); Von Neumann stayed in first-class hotels and was resolutely non-athletic. Turing was a homosexual, and was convicted of that ‘crime’ in puritan England of 1952; Von Neumann indulged in wine and women. For all these traits both men were exceptionally brilliant, and the digital technology needed such geniuses as midwives during birth.
A child prodigy, von Neumann could divide two eight-digit numbers in his head at age six; by eight he mastered the calculus. Speaking of the Manhattan telephone book he said once that he knew all the numbers in it by heart and only need to memorize the names.
Von Neumann was one among those Hungarians who migrated to the US to escape Nazi torture, and eventually masterminded world-changing events. Cutting short a career in academia, von Neumann joined the atom bomb project at Los Alamos. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki the US army wanted bigger bombs, but those couldn’t be built by trial and error; computers were needed to simulate the physics and blast waves. Work was secretly in progress at the University of Pennsylvania to build a digital number cruncher, named Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer. It had cables and switches, but had to be programmed manually. Von Neumann sold the army the Mathematical and Numerical Integrator and Compute, a machine that could run on a program stored within its memory. Dyson weaves his tale around this machine — at times ignoring the importance of the efforts of other groups trying to do the same.
He is uniquely placed to write the story of the MANIAC. Son of the physicist Freeman Dyson, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, for six decades, he grew up in its campus, and saw the MANIAC’s dismantled remnants. Thanks to his extensive research at the institute’s archive, Dyson recorded in graphic detail, the atmosphere when the MANIAC was made. Especially fascinating is the intra-faculty strife within the campus when the theoreticians, Albert Einstein included, opposed vehemently the engineers’ attempts to pollute the hallowed precint by colluding with the army and build something to help genocide.
Von Neumann, of course, won the battle. Dyson describes von Neumann’s second wife Klári recalling her husband being shaken by what his computer might wreak. One night in 1945 Neumann told Klári, “What we are creating now is a monster whose influence is going to change history, provided there is any history left.” She knew he wasn’t talking of bombs, but something more powerful. She then prescribed him “a couple of sleeping pills and a very strong drink.”
Turing’s Cathedral,a poignant story of the twin births of computers and bombs, reverberates with such revealing anecdotes.