Book review: “Turing’s Cathedral” (by George Dyson)

This rather extended essay deals with the magic period of time when a group of distinguished scientists and mathematicians were brought together to turn into reality the Turing conjecture of a machine whose instructions and data could be in the same physical location.

As some other readers have commented, despite the title, the book deals much more with the life and exploits of John von Neumann (a figure I am proud to have previously mentioned in this blog) than those of Alan Turing; also, despite the best intentions of all the scientists involved, the effort was driven primarily by the need of performing high-speed computations necessary to the development of the hydrogen bomb, leading to absurdities like Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance being removed one day before its natural expiry.

I, too, would have appreciated more details on Turing’s tormented life (remember, this is a guy that despite essentially winning the WWII intelligence war by cracking the Enigma nazi cypher code was still convicted of “gross indecency” for being homosexual) but instead I was rewarded with a unique glimpse of the largely stochastic course of events that led such an incredible group of minds in close proximity to each other.

Other reviewers have stygmatized the dry prose and I second that, even though the first half of the book is in my opinion much more lively and readable – perhaps more research was necessary to bring to life the characters in the second half, even though Julian Bigelow’s figure and contribution do stand out in the second part, giving me more ammunition for one of my attempts at becoming Oscar Wilde by stating that “engineer will rule the world”.

All in all, a worthy read for anyone who has an interest in computer science; this book has definitely the guts of a good, riveting, interesting narrative book hidden somewhere inside, but Dyson fails to bring them out, maybe somebody else could.

Or Hollywood, perhaps.


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