Sunday, February 8, 2015

Turing's Cathedral

The subtitle for this book by George Dyson is The Origins of the Digital Universe. It is largely a study of major research establishments in the USA, such as the Institute for Advanced Study, established in the twentieth century for the study of advanced science, especially mathematical sciences. Prior to the Second World War a number of prominent scientists left Europe to live and work in America and these became an important part of the teams that worked on improved weapon capabilities during and after the war as well as furthering the development of  what became computer science. One of these men was John von Neumann who was from Hungary.

After the war a group of mathematicians, including von Neumann, worked on building a universal machine such as the one proposed by Alan Turing, an English mathematician. Turing studied for his PhD at Princeton University for two years from 1936 where he worked with von Neumann. With war looming he returned to England where he worked as a code-breaker creating machines to decipher German coded messages. Turing visited New York for a short time during the war and returned again in 1947 but in 1948 he was back working in Manchester.

Meanwhile von Neumann and his team experimented in developing machines, initially following the ideas of Turing's theories and then developing them further. The book therefore looks at the the history of the development of computer science until around 1957 when von Neumann died. As a study of the history of the development of computers during and after the war this is an interesting book, however the story becomes bogged down with technical detail which for the non-technical person is not easy to follow. According to some of the reviews on Goodreads, some of those with technical expertise question the presentation in this book. Never the less, in our current computer age, skimming through the book provides an interesting overview of the early development of computers that we take for granted today.

Review of Turing's Cathedral in New York Times May 4, 2012

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park

The subtitle of this book written by Sinclair McKay is The WWII codebreaking centre and the men and women who lived there.

Recently we saw the film, The Imitation Game, which is largely about Alan Turing, one of the codebreakers who worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. ABC2 has also shown the British television mystery series, The Bletchley Circle, set in the early 1950s where a group of women who had worked at Bletchley Park use there codebreaking skills to solve crime.

Bletchley Park was an establishment set up at the end of the 1930s with the aim of collecting together a team of people to work on breaking the coded messages of enemy forces, primarily German messages. Eventually thousands of men and women worked at Blatchley Park and before they were employed they all had to sign the Official Secrets Act. They were not allowed to discuss their work with anyone not working within their section and could definitely not tell family and friends what they were doing at Bletchley Park. This secrecy continued until the early 1970s.

In this book, published in 2010, the author uses interviews with a selection of staff who worked at Bletchley Park to help tell the story of this large establishment. Some of the more famous people such as Alan Turing, Dilly Knox and Alistair Denniston (to name a few) are mentioned throughout the book but the story told tries to cover the work in the many sections of the organisation and investigates how the lives of the staff were affected by living in a world of secrecy. Much of the information relating to the work of the codebreakers was destroyed once the war was over so the author has to rely, to a large extent, on the memories of those involved. In sections there is repetition of some of the stories and I found myself skim reading parts of the book, however if you are interested in this important aspect of World War II it is a good book to read.