the origins of the digital universe

Recently published this book by George Dyson fills a longstanding gap, and just in time. Many of those involved in what was a dramatic story will not be around to tell it much longer, for these events took place during and shortly after World War 2.
In the early 1940s large-scale calculation became increasingly required for a number of tasks, computing gun trajectories, weather forecasting, breaking encoded secret messages, the evolution of the interior of stars and the development of nuclear weapons. These calculations were carried out by groups of people (students, housewives) working together in a repetitive way carrying out standardized calculation. Calculators and punch cards were used also but the former were unreliable and the latter cumbersome, though large amounts of data could be stored.

In 1936 Alan Turing published a paper showing it was possible to ‘build a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence’. Its importance had been appreciated by John von Neumann working at The Institute for Advanced Study at Princetown New Jersey who had seen drafts of the paper, where later the same year Turing moved to work. Subsequently dubbed a ‘Turing machine’, there is at least one Universal Turing Machine inside every modern computer. Here is a link:

Then the second world war started and Turing went to work with a group at Bletchley Park on several projects but one was to enable the German Navy Enigma codes to be broken using these mathematical approaches. Not only were they broken but broken quickly enough for the information to be used in real time to defend the convoys of merchant ships against U boats. A highly significant contribution to the war effort at the time. All this remained highly secret for many years after the war. How much Turing and von Neumann collaborated is uncertain. There is oblique evidence that Turing returned from a trip to the USA in 1943 asking his mathematical colleagues to help with theoretical questions directly related to the highly secret Manhattan Project to develop the Atomic Bomb that von Neumann was involved in at the time. As far as the development of practical electronic computers is concerned the two men had different approaches. Turing got bogged down in post war Britain trying to help build ‘a proposed electronic calculator’. In 1950 a partial prototype was built and though it worked better than predicted, Turing ceased to be involved, eventually dying in 1954 probably by suicide.

Von Newmann’s design for a practical computer dated 1945 was a synthesis of ideas from many people. The development of electronic computers was seen as central to the development of the hydrogen bomb by the US military and was supported. Thus leading to the H bomb and the IBM 701 the first commercially made fully electronic computer. It is remarkable that all modern commercial computers are based on von Neumann’s basic design that emerged from forced collaboration between potential rivals during and shortly after the war. A complex story well told by Mr Dyson splitting into various strands, all involving von Neumann. The computing machine MANIAC used for the H bomb calculations was also used to study other problems: evolutionary processes at the heart of stars, blast waves, meteorology and the evolution of a model of artificial digital life. Prescient work by Nils Aall Barricelli which was long forgotten until recently. There was ambivalence on the part of many about the making of the H bomb.Though the computer was funded by the military they should not own it. Attempts to patent the concepts and design of the machine were blocked.

1947/8 MANIAC built and starts running(Mathematical and Numerical Integrator and Calculator) (Electronic Computer Project)
The machine ran until July 15 1958
1952 IBM 701 First commercial scientific computer available
1952 Ivy Mike First hydrogen bomb explosion (by the USA)
1953 Watson and Crick paper on DNA structure published.

The base sequence of a molecule of DNA can act as a code to store information. There are serious suggestions to use DNA for long term stable storage of data in a compact and stable way.

Perhaps all is not how it seems: In 1950 Turing commented about computers being ‘mansions for the souls that He creates’. Olof Johannesson adds ‘It is difficult to see why a soul should come to rest in a human body, when from from both intellectual and moral viewpoints a computer would be preferable’ ref Hannes Alfvén (Olof Johannesson), The Tale of the Big Computer (New York: Coward McCann),1968p

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