Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

Website: chetyarbrough.com

Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe

By George Dyson 

 Narrated by Arthur Morey

The beginning of a Faustian’ bargain with the collective mind of man is revealed in George Dyson’s book, “Turing’s Cathedral”.  The advent of WWII offers license to unfettered science.


Johnny Von Neumann, the brilliant Hungarian theoretician, joins the American military/industrial complex, before it was known as a “complex”, to offer mankind the fruit of a tree of knowledge.  Von Neumann, through the auspices of the federal government, Princeton University, and Oswald Veblen, creates a math and engineering department that changes the world.  The fruit of the math/engineering department’s labor is an inedible vacuum-tube burning, wire bound, human contraption that evolves from a mechanical monster called ENIAC


into a multitude of configurations; one that ironically became known as “Apple”.  (This is not an entirely apt metaphor because Apple’s predecessors are ENIAC, MANIAC and IBM but it makes the importance of computer invention extant and impactful.)

JOHN (JOHNNIE) von NEUMANN (1903-1957)

Though this is a historical account of the invention and consequence of computer manufacture, listening to “Turing’s Cathedral” seduces one into seeing war and the military as a primary source of world technological advance; i.e. out of the destruction of war, a future is born.

GOVERNMENT (What strikes one’s imagination is how critical government involvement, particularly the military, has been to research and development.)

What strikes one’s imagination is how critical government involvement, particularly the military, has been to research and development in science.  One wonders if the computer would ever have been invented without the advance of a horrendously destructive war.  At the very least, war accelerated the invention of a computer generation.


George Dyson’s book recounts the confluence of military might and computer invention when the need for calculation of ordinance trajectory and explosive impact probabilities becomes increasingly important for more efficient and impactful murder in war.  Human calculations could not efficiently or effectively determine the course of a flying howitzer shell or the measured impact of a dropped flying-fortress’ bomb.  What the military needed was a better calculating tool than the single human brain.


Von Neumann’s innate brilliance envisions a scientific journey; i.e. from more efficient and effective design and use of military ordinance for mass murder to a Pandora’s opening to nuclear war, and the pursuit of artificial intelligence designed to predict the future.  One is driven to believe war is not that bad, except for the murdering part, and that science’s advance is a tightrope to heaven or a fall into Dante’s inferno.  Von Neumann’s contribution is not limited to war; he uses his insight to a digital universe by exploring here-to-for unpredictable events like weather, the consequence of demographic change in the world, and genetic variability.

The following is a video of the first hydrogen bomb explosion in 1952: [One pilot is killed while monitoring the explosion; i.e. this pilot is the first victim of the hydrogen bomb that is 50 times the force of Hiroshima or Nagasaki’s bombs (atomic bombs that killed an estimated 200,000 human beings).]  <iframe width=”420″ height=”315″ src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/NNcQX033V_M” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>iframe>

Dyson adds to the case for war’s efficacy as an engine of science when computers begin playing an important role in breaking enemy military codes, designing bomb sites, and improving accuracy of big and small projectiles. One wonders, without government, without the military, and sadly, without war, would humankind have reached into the universe in the 1960s?


This is an important book, somewhat difficult to track because of its non-linear time presentation, but a valuable insight to a giant step in the history of science.  One cannot help but be troubled by the source of mankind’s twentieth century scientific leaps; so many scientific advances seem closely tied to perfection and invention of potential weapons of mass destruction.

The following interview of George Dyson gives a more sanguine view of “Turing’s Cathedral” but read or listen to the book to get a more complete picture of the book’s implications: http://www.youtube.com/embed/hF9VsUxHM9U” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

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