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.
Nov 30, 2015
United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres, center left, Minister of the Environment of Peru and COP20 President Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, center right, and French Foreign Affairs Minister and COP 21 President Laurent Fabius, center, pose for photographers during a press visit to the COP21, Paris Climate Conference, site, in Le Bourget, north of Paris, France, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

World leaders converge in Paris for the big climate talks. We’ll look at what it will take to get a global climate agreement.

Nov 30, 2015
Shoppers walks in front of a holiday display Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, in San Francisco.(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

From Black Friday to Cyber Monday and beyond, we’ll add up the dollars and trends and bargains of the 2015 holiday shopping season.

Nov 27, 2015
The punk rock band Sleater-Kinney (from L: Janet Weiss, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker) (Courtesy the Band)

Feminist punk-rockers, the band Sleater-Kinney, is with us. Reunited. Hotter than ever.

Nov 27, 2015
Josh Baldonado, an administrative assistant at Brown & Brown Insurance, works at a treadmill desk in the firms offices in Carmel, Ind., Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013. (AP)

The end of sitting at work. A new call to get up off our chairs. To stand and move! We’ll look at how that works.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Fresh Ideas For Your Thanksgiving: Recipes
Wednesday, Nov 25, 2015

Did our Thanksgiving 2016 episode make you hungry? Good news — we’ve got recipes right here.

More »
Karl Rove Still Won’t Get Involved In The 2016 G.O.P. Primary
Tuesday, Nov 24, 2015

Karl Rove may say he’s not endorsing or getting involved in the 2016 G.O.P. presidential primary, but that won’t stop from offering advice on how to beat Republican front runner Donald Trump.

More »
Roger Cohen And Barry Posen On ISIS
Monday, Nov 23, 2015

A brief, but illustrative exchange between Barry Posen and Roger Cohen during our conversation on ISIS today.

More »