A review of Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins Of The Digital Universe by George Dyson.

Although this is not at all a biography of Alan Turing per se, this is an absolutely fantastic book. Though the story takes wide ranging liberties of scope in the interest of being fascinating, it is really more biographical about Johnny von Neumann than anyone else. The writing is extremely literate and readable. The material is profoundly important, yet fresh and relatively unexplored. The incredible story Dyson relates is both technical and personal. And true. Clearly Dyson writes from a very well informed and privileged vantage (Oppenheimer was his neighbor). The organization is a bit quirky but always to excellent effect. As I read this book I kept thinking about the excellent TV show from the 1970s, "Connections", with James Burke (freely available online). I loved that show with its incredible personal anecdotes about how the world of humans got to be the way it is and, of course, how they were connected to each other. This book has a similar feel but there is something more. Connections left you with an appreciation of the amazing web of activity that gave rise to our species' greatest achievements. In Turing’s Cathedral, all of those elements are present, but there is an additional sense that we are at the dawn of something much more fantastic. The author relates a personal discussion with physicist Edward Teller about some of the themes of the book’s conclusion and Teller advises Dyson to write a science fiction novel instead because the reality is just too eerie. I’m glad Dyson decided not to do that, however, since his clear prose and exacting research make it clear that we are at the dawn of something quite fantastic. If you are interested in technology, science, mathematics, physics, history, bioinformatics, futurology, computers, and/or computer science this book is highly recommended. If you know someone who is not interested in these things, this book could easily change that.