Review: Turing’s Cathedral, by George Dyson

One of the key measures of how much I like a book is how quickly I get through it. Turing’s Cathedral
went back to the library today after having being renewed the maximum of three times; I did finish it, but only just.

I can’t put my finger on what it was that didn’t do it for me. It covers what I’d expect to be a fascinating time (the years around the development of some of the first computers at the IAS in Princeton) and one of my favourite characters (von Neumann — with cameos from Turing and Feynman, among others) and some of the biggest dilemmas of the age (should we build a nuclear bomb? can computers think? should we treat engineers like mathematicians?).

It starts brightly, with some colourful background about the War of Independence and the history of Princeton, but descends fairly quickly into “X escaped from Germany just before the war and joined the Institute on a salary of $y$, to the distress of Z, who thought it would annoy the engineers1…”

It just feels a bit… rambly. There’s an awful lot of detail, and Dyson’s scholarship is beyond question; I think his storytelling lets the book down. I didn’t get a sense of the drama and jeopardy I’d have hoped for in a pop-science book about such an interesting time.

If you’ve read this and have a more positive opinion of it, I’d love to hear from you!

Colin

Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008.

He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.

  1. and, really, what kind of objection is that? I’d call it a plus! []

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