Magazine April 16, 2012, Issue

The Great Numbers Crunch

(Catherine Benson/Reuters)
Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, by George Dyson (Pantheon, 432 pp., $29.95)

This year marks the centenary of British mathematician Alan Turing, whose researches in the unlikely and very abstruse field of mathematical logic did much to create the world in which we now live. In 1936, Turing published a paper titled “On Computable Numbers” in the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society. The paper received almost no attention. “Only two requests for reprints came in,” George Dyson tells us. The reason for this is interesting — is, in fact, one of the main themes in Dyson’s book.

It is an odd thing that, in 1936, digital technologies were old hat. The coming

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