Does it compute?

Turing’s Cathedral: The origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson

This book wasn’t really what I was expecting. Its main subject is John Von Neumann with an emphasis on the time he spent affiliated with the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, and the kinds of projects that happened there around the Second World War. Von Neumann was a truly brilliant man, who did some fantastic work in the pure mathematics before he became interested in more applied mathematics such as the work on the first atomic bomb. During the course of this work on the bomb, huge teams worked as human computers in order to carry out the calculations required to simulate the mathematical model of the bomb, and this was obviously a motivating factor in deciding to get a team together that could build an electronic machine that could automate the process.

The book gives some of the history of the IAS, and then tells the story of the development of the first computer at the IAS and the projects that it was used for. In the course of the story we learn about a number of the people involved and their contributions – for example Stan Ulam and his Monte Carlo methods for solving hard mathematical problems. We don’t learn any specifics about the computer that they designed – it would have been nice to have seen information on the instruction set, or example programs from the early days, but it’s still an interesting read and I enjoyed it.

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