Skip to main content
review: non-fiction

John von Neumann, c. 1940s, a Hungarian mathematician, argued that an optimal computer would have a single processor, which performed basic operations on a single piece of data at a time, which it transferred to and from a high-speed memory.

In the collective consciousness, it's safe to say that the computer and its bastard stepchild the Interweb begins with some faceless IBMer who begat Gates and Jobs ,who begat Page and Brin, who begat Zuckerberg, who begat the 14-year-old billionaire who developed whatever app you'll be downloading 10 minutes from now.

One name that likely won't occur is that of John von Neumann. Like his better-known academic colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, N.J., Einstein and Kurt Godel, von Neumann, a Hungarian mathematician (and an obvious genius) was saved from the ravages of National Socialism and brought to America.

He could have very easily spent the rest of his days noodling away at some obscure conjecture or other. Instead, George Dyson argues in his electrifying new contribution to intellectual history, Turing's Cathedral, "Johnny" as he was known, set the course for the entwined engineering and scientific voyages that begat the most critical advances in the digital universe, nuclear weapons, genetics, cosmology and meteorology.

Throughout the late forties and well into the 1950s, von Neumann and a host of engineering colleagues at the IAS designed and built the first computer of the digital age, essentially the forerunner to every device we count as a computer today, from the PC to the iPhone to the supercomputers that model the cutting edge of scientific discovery.

Dyson's gift as a narrator is to move seamlessly between the somewhat technical details of the machine's development ("christened MANIAC for Mathematical and Numerical Integrator and Computer") and its practical applications. "The new machine," writes Dyson, "was put to its first test during the summer of 1951 with a thermonuclear calculation that ran for sixty days non stop. The results were confirmed by two huge explosions in the south pacific: Ivy Mike, yielding the equivalent of 10.4 million tons of TNT at Enewetak on November 1, 1952, and Castle Bravo, yielding 15 megatons at Bikini on February 28, 1954."

That the first calculations on MANIAC were devoted to supporting potential nuclear annihilation points to the paradox that resides at the heart of Dyson's investigation. "It is no coincidence that that the most destructive and the most constructive of human inventions appeared at exactly the same time. Only the collective intelligence of computers could save us from the destructive powers of the weapons that they allowed us to invent."

Moreover, within the same building, at roughly the same time, the greatest scientific minds of the age disagreed profoundly as to the practical implications of their discoveries. "In adjacent offices …Von Neumann was arguing for preventative war against the Soviet Union to be followed by Pax Americana, while Albert Einstein was contributing his call to global disarmament, "one way out" to the Federation of American Scientists' manifesto One World or None.

Besides his evident talents as a science writer and explicator, Dyson brings a particular insight born of his life experience. As the son of Freeman Dyson, the British-born physicist and inheritor of Einstein's mantle at the IAS, George Dyson actually grew up on the grounds while his father contributed to the ongoing discourse to which his son devotes his investigative and literary talents. It's as if we are reading a version of the New Testament as seen through the eyes of a son of an apostle.

Beyond the importance of this book as a contribution to the history of science, as a generalist I was struck by Dyson's eye and ear for the delightfully entertaining detail. While it might seem of the barest insignificance given the importance of his subject matter, Dyson notes, in reviewing the correspondence between von Neumann and his firecracker of a wife Klari (the book is as much the story of their love as anything else), the following passage from a letter describing an aspect of life in Nevada; an observation from one of their many road trips back and forth across Von Neumann's adopted homeland: " 'a man with a nice long beard, wearing well used denims, tied his pack mule to the hitching post, then rode the other one, his mount, into the bar where we were consoling ourselves. Nobody blinked an eye, the bartender handed the man a glass of beer and a bucket of the same brew was placed in front of the mule. The whole scene was a mute play; it seemed completely routine, the man paid, he and his beast drank up, and quietly left the place.' "

Turing's Cathedral is suffused with similar moments of insight, quirk and hilarity rendering it more than just a great book about science. It's a great book, period.

Douglas Bell co-wrote the film Afghan Luke, nominated for the 2012 Writer's Guild of Canada prize for best screenplay. He has, thanks to his partner, science writer Siobhan Roberts, spent many happy months at the Institute for Advanced Study.