It’s always inspiring to show up at my desk on days when the library gets new books. All ready and waiting for me are the gems that make the KANEKO-UNO Creativity Library so special. Today’s pile offered up titles covering all range of subject matters, from contemporary shoes to understanding semiotics to mystic religion to mathematical sciences. From such a selection, it is quite difficult to select one book that deserves some special attention on the website. This week’s book, Turing’s Cathedral, is elevated this week not because it is in someway better than those it shares a shelf with but because it deals with a subject matter that is so significant to modern history.
From the dust jacket comes this moving description:
“‘It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence,’ twenty-four-year-old Alan Turing announced in 1936. In Turing’s Cathedral, George Dyson focuses on a small group of men and women, led by John von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who built one of the first computers to realize Alan Turing’s vision of a Universal Machine. Their work would break the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things—and our universe would never be the same.
Using five kilobytes of memory (the amount allocated to displaying the cursor on a computer desktop of today), they achieved unprecedented success in both weather prediction and nuclear weapons design, while tackling, in their spare time, problems ranging from the evolution of viruses to the evolution of stars.
Dyson’s account, both historic and prophetic, sheds important new light on how the digital universe exploded in the aftermath of World War II. The proliferation of both codes and machines was paralleled by two historic developments: the decoding of self-replicating sequences in biology and the invention of the hydrogen bomb. It’s no coincidence that the most destructive and the most constructive of human inventions appeared at exactly the same time.”
Now, I will be up front about my mathematical skills- they are basic. I finished calculus in 10th grade and have yet to take another math class. So it is intriguing, at least to me, that the element of this description that I fixate on is that there are two types of numbers- “ numbers that mean things and numbers that do things.” Nine words. Nine words and my brain is frantically trying to catch up to this new framework in which to view mathematics. I now must know what distinguishes one number from another and why. And how did this distinction come to Turing? And how did it play into the creation of the computers and devices that so dominate our world? What prompted this revolutionary thinking?
Books like this always serve to remind me why a library like this exists- that without creativity, without pushing boundaries, without different viewpoints, our world would be…less? Or is it just different? Certainly, without creativity, our world would not be what it is today.