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.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
Oct 7, 2015
The Doctors Without Borders trauma center is seen in flames, after explosions near their hospital in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz. Doctors Without Borders announced that the death toll from the bombing of the group's Kunduz hospital compound has risen to at least 16, including 3 children and that tens are missing after the explosions that may have been caused by a U.S. airstrike.  (AP)

The U.S. airstrike on the hospital in Kunduz. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan faces tough questions from Congress. We’re looking for what really happened.

Oct 7, 2015
Students in the new documentary film "Beyond Measure" take part in a project-based learning activity with their peers. (Courtesy the Filmmakers)

Arne Duncan’s headed out as U.S. Education Secretary. What’s next for America’s school kids?

Oct 6, 2015
In this Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015, photo, Dorothy McIntosh Shuemake, mother of Alison Shuemake, browses a picture collage of her daughter at her home, in Middletown, Ohio. Alison Shuemake, 18, died Aug. 26, after a suspected heroin overdose. (AP)

American addiction. From prescription painkillers to heroin. The numbers are staggering. Why?

Oct 6, 2015
Eric Baker, co-owner of the Mo Money Pawn Shop, poses for a photo at the shop Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, in Phoenix.  (AP)

American gun policy front and center in the 2016 campaigns after the shootings in Oregon. We’ll look at who stands where on guns.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Rep. Daniel Webster: ‘I’m Gonna Sell This Message’
Tuesday, Oct 6, 2015

When House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) announced his retirement and resignation from his position last month, it surprised both his Party and the Washington political establishment.

More »
Our Week In The Web: October 2, 2015
Friday, Oct 2, 2015

We say hello again to our email address (since so many of you did this week) and goodbye to the Log Lady.

More »
Interview With Sen. Bernie Sanders: ‘Count Me As A Radical’
Thursday, Oct 1, 2015

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is making waves in the 2016 Presidential race, and he joined us today from the US Capitol to explain how his campaign message is connecting with voters around the country.

More »