The Origins Of The Digital Universe

Science historian George Dyson on the birth of the digital age, and where we stand now.

George Dyson (credit Ann Yow-Dyson)

George Dyson (credit Ann Yow-Dyson)

We are living in a digital world.  We know it, but sometime we still don’t get it… just how much and how fast the world around us is changing in the digital embrace.  Historian George Dyson says it all goes back to huge ideas at the dawn of the computer age.

When physicists and mathematicians scrambled to break Nazi codes, and then to build machines that could calculate the unfathomable destructive power of the hydrogen bomb.  We have used computers to build a new age, he says.  Now computers use us.

This hour, On Point:  George Dyson on the birth of the digital age, and where we stand now.

-Tom Ashbrook


George Dyson, author of Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. You can read an excerpt of the book here.

From Tom’s Reading List

Wall Street Journal “A computer that can store (and thus modify) its own program, by contrast, can readily be adapted to different tasks. In fact, it can solve any problem one can put to it, given enough time. This universal power was what terrified—and thrilled—von Neumann; its theoretical underpinnings were the work of the British mathematician Alan Turing.”

The Independent “Dyson brings out many philosophical implications of the growth of computing power and the parallels between life’s codes and computer codes. But this is essentially the American side of the story, with John von Neumann as the central figure and the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies as the backdrop. Von Neumann was a Hungarian Jewish mathematician who after a precocious early career came to Princeton in 1930.”

The Seattle Times “Copiously employing letters, memoirs, oral histories and personal interviews, Dyson organizes his book around the personalities of the men (and occasional woman) behind the computer, and does a splendid job in bringing them to life. Prime among them was John von Neumann, a brilliant Hungarian immigrant whose career spanned quantum mechanics, set theory, economics, computer science, nuclear-weapons design and a score of other fields (he invented game theory more or less in his spare time).”

Video: Google Tech Talks

Check out this 2008 lecture that Dyson gave on “Turing’s Cathedral.”

Video: ENIAC Computer

This video shows the operation of the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer or ENIAC computer built at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946.

Video: Computer Singing

This video from 1961 shows the computer “Daisy Bell,” the first machine programed to sing.

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