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A Creation Myth for the Computer Age

April 5, 2012

This video shows our interview with George Dyson about his new book, Turing’s Cathedral

The book is a fascinating, meticulously researched account of the effort to build the first universal Turing machine, under the leadership of the mercurial John von Neumann, at the Institute for Advanced Study during the second world war. The resulting computer, called the MANIAC, was used to perform thermonuclear calculations that fueled the development of the atomic bomb, and, in spare moments, to perform mathematical calculations on principles of symbiogenesis and evolution.  

The story has a personal side for George, who spent his early years at the Institute, where his father Freeman Dyson worked as a professor, and he remembers playing with some of the parts discarded by the engineers working on the computer project. 

Technology Review contributing editor Simson Garfinkel reviewed Dyson’s book, and discussed the broader significance of Turing’s work, in the article Turing’s Enduring Importance, published in the last issue of the magazine (March/April 2012).

Delving further back into our archive, you can read a wonderful article by George’s father, A Failure of Intelligenceabout his experiences developing analytical methods for the Royal Air force during the war.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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