Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Humanity Behind the Invention of the Computer

What would existence be like without a computer? It’s difficult to imagine but it wasn’t that long ago that people didn’t have them. Now many of us carry numerous computers, i.e. laptops, e-readers, and smartphones.

How did our culture go from no computers to having so much access to them in such a short time? George Dyson, a science historian, asks this question in his book, Turing’s Cathedral.

Dyson has a distinctive vantage point that makes him the perfect author for this book. He’s the son of a top scientist, Freeman Dyson and, as a result, has spent much of his years at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. The Institute was home to the globe’s most accomplished scientific minds – included Einstein’s – as they were in the midst of building and operating the first digital computers under the guidance of scientist Josh von Neumann.

Turing’s Cathedral explores the creation of the computer, featuring the clashing personalities which were thrown together to work on the project. It also examines what was involved in the creation of the computer, much of which was chance.

When great minds work on a project there are bound to be rivalries and heated disagreements, the development of the computer was no different. This book shows that the individuals that worked on this project were geniuses, not necessarily saints. In addition there were some moral problems that the creators of the computer faced while working on this project, because the work they were doing had a close association with the U.S. nuclear weapons project.

You may have the idea that a history book about computers will not only be dry but also full of complicated jargon. This is not true with Turing’s Cathedral; nearly everybody who use computers will find this book fascinating. And that is a lot of people these days.


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