Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson

Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson is an account of the development of the digital universe – how we got to universal machines that could be used to run any program.

It’s an interesting subject. The book largely focuses on the people, which are really the meat and bones of any story. Dyson’s prose is clear, but I could feel myself glazing over certain parts as my mathematical or engineering knowledge wasn’t enough to understand the technical aspect he was talking about.

More jarring is the way the book is structured. Dyson often goes into great detail about a single person’s life from start to finish before returning to a point later in that person’s life significant to the development of the universal machine. He does this over and over, introducing a person, giving a potted history of most of their life, sometimes taking pages to do so, then returns to the relevant point in time of say, MANIAC’s development, or the development of the Institute of Advanced Studies. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible to develop a clear timeline because there are so many people involved.

Dyson’s digressions are never boring, so he can be forgiven for making them, but they do make it hard to remember where you are. I found myself rooting around in previous pages on occasion to find my position on the timeline.

The long and short of it is that after a page or two that was just excerpts of impenetrable maths-adjacent speak, I gave up. Two-thirds of the way in, I was no longer concerned with finding out the conclusion, so when presented with this material that wasn’t easily absorbed, I couldn’t summon the effort to continue. Whether this is my failing or the book’s is up for debate.

The inclusion of historical pictures is nice – does that say something about me; would I have been better off with ‘The Origins of the Digital Universe – The Picture Book? Probably – seeing ephemera and people actually working on MANIAC was interesting.

I went into the book with verve – that interest in the subject hasn’t gone away, and I’m going to go and read more about it, but not from this tome. I get the impression I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I had a better grasp of computer science or maths – perhaps after some other reading, I’ll come back to this, but for now, I’m done.

P.s. this is just my experience with the book; to nick Chuck Wendig’s favourite phrase; your mileage may vary.

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