In Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, historian George Dyson introduces readers to the eccentric, real-life characters who pioneered computing in America beginning after World War I and continuing through World War II. This unique group of intellectuals lived and worked at Abraham Flexner’s Institute for Advanced Study, where Dyson himself spent his boyhood. Dyson recently spoke with TechRepublic during a trip to Louisville, Kentucky.
TechRepublic: Abraham Flexner believed that “Institutes are happiest if they have no history.” Do you see that way of thinking in the computer industry today?
Dyson: I would say, as a general rule, most computer scientists are cognizant of computer history because it developed so recently. It’s more the human history that gets lost. Of course, I’m biased by being an historian. I think all companies should take more of an historical view in order to avoid repeating work that was done earlier. It’s human nature to think we are doing something new, whereas an historian would say “wait a minute, we already did this.” So I think a lot of work gets repeated.
In general, I think Flexner’s view was really quite healthy. It shouldn’t matter what an educational institution did in the past; it should matter what they are doing now.
TechRepublic: In the book, you give an extensive list of principal characters; of the list, who do you think is the most interesting character, and why?
Dyson: Well, my mother’s on the list. (laughs). Pretty much, the people on that list were all interesting. It’s hard to say who is the most interesting. Clearly Alan Turing was one of the most interesting… I find some of the lesser characters to be terribly interesting. Like Bernetta Miller, who was what we now would call the Administrative Assistant, was the fifth woman in the United States to get a pilot’s license and became a secretary when her eyesight went bad. So, there’s an interesting person.
TechRepublic: In your interview with Wired, you said that you left the Canadian wilds because you looked at the digital universe and tracks of organisms coming to life. How did you look at the digital universe from 95 feet up in a Douglas fir tree?
Dyson: There you have to credit or thank my sister, Esther Dyson who was a leader in this world. At the time, she published a newsletter that was Esther Dyson’s news from the electronic frontier. Me, being her little brother, I got her newsletters. I would sit there at the edge of the wilderness reading Esther’s newsletters. Originally, it was the Rosen Electronics Letter, covering semiconductors, then Rosen sold it to her, and she switched it more to personal computing. Her title was Release 1.0, keeping the initials REL. That was a very influential thing at the time. Release 1.0 sort of brought the computer people together with the bankers.
TechRepublic: Why did you move to Canada?
Dyson: I moved to Canada to become a boat builder. I never finished high school and became a Canadian boat builder. I worked on tug boats and fishing boats and that kind of thing. I am eternally grateful to Canada for being such a welcoming country; Canada being much like America was in the 1930s when Flexner set up the Institute, welcoming displaced Europeans. Canada was the same way, welcoming displaced Americans.
TechRepublic: Do you prefer the digital universe to the physical universe?
Dyson: No, I much prefer the real universe; I’m a real universe guy. But the digital universe is having a greater and greater affect on the real universe, so you can’t ignore it.
TechRepublic: What does the biological digital universe look like (if you were to draw a picture of it)?
Dyson: Well, at that time there was no Internet. There were the beginnings of what would become the Internet. They were exchanging code through floppy discs, then that quickly became local networks and wide area networks. If you looked at it you would see a lot of code moving between machines… that’s what goes on in biology where microbes start exchanging biological code. I think the mistake is that somehow we get stuck in these preconceptions. When we think of Darwinian evolution, we think of mutations…in real biology, evolution is based less on mutation than on “crossing”; where two pieces of code are crossed. Like with children, you take (genetic) code from one parent and cross it with code from another parent. That’s what these computer companies are doing — buying and stealing each other’s code and adding it to their own. That’s really what drives evolution in the digital universe.