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Dawn of digital era comes alive via ‘On the Same Page’

In a return to the campus where he was briefly a student, dropout-turned-historian George Dyson recounted the history of the birth of computers in the mud of World War II, and the genius of a cast of characters that included his own father, Freeman.

George Dyson

“There are two kinds of creation myths: those where life arises out of the mud, and those where life falls from the sky,” George Dyson writes in the preface to Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. “In this creation myth, computers arose from the mud, and code fell from the sky.”

George Dyson in Wheeler Auditorium

George Dyson, backdropped by a 32-by-32 array of charged spots, the digital universe as it existed in 1953. (Peg Skorpinski photos)

Turing’s Cathedral, the focus of Berkeley’s “On the Same Page” program this year, chronicles the birth of the digital era in the mud of World War II and the work of brilliant mathematicians like John von Neumann – a lover of all things military who turned his passion for designing the world’s most destructive weapons to creating its most intelligent computers – and a group of engineers he assembled at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J, in 1945.

“Von Neumann’s project,” Dyson writes, “was the physical construct of Alan Turing’s Universal Machine, a theoretical construct invented in 1936.”

The electronic digital computer the group came up with had five kilobytes of storage – about one-tenth of the memory, Dyson noted in his keynote Wednesday in Wheeler Auditorium, it now takes to send a one-sentence email. Despite today’s beefed-up computing capacity, however, Dyson’s well-illustrated talk – titled “The First Five Kilobytes Are the Hardest” – made a point of noting how little the digital world has actually changed.

Turing’s theoretical machine, he explained, was based on a string of symbols encoded on a one-dimensional tape, while von Neumann’s computer introduced the two-dimensional “address matrix” found in today’s Macs and PCs.

“The landscape is now three-dimensional,” he writes in Turing’s Cathedral, “yet the entire Internet can still be viewed as an unbounded tape shared by a multitude of Turing’s Universal Machines.”

Since 2006, “On the Same Page” has offered new undergraduates a semester’s worth of lectures and activities planned around a central work of art, science or literature, including campus visits by such luminaries as cosmologist Stephen Hawking, director Ang Lee and historian Garry Wills.

For this year’s program, incoming freshmen and transfer students were given copies of Dyson’s latest book before they arrived on campus, and this week got the chance to see, hear and meet the author himself.

Besides von Neumann and the British Turing, Dyson’s story includes a dazzling international cast of supporting characters that include Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Edward Teller and Dyson’s own father, Freeman. (The book includes a photo, taken in 1954, that shows Dyson as a toddler with his family at the Institute for Advanced Study, where both of his parents worked.) It’s the history of the creation of computer code, but it’s equally about the people who created that history.


(Turing, for his part, was convicted in 1952 of “gross indecency,” and forced by the English courts to undergo “estrogen therapy.” While Turing “may have committed suicide,” Dyson said Wednesday, that’s not certain. All that’s known is he died in 1954, “evidently of cyanide poisoning,” two weeks before his 42nd birthday.)

On Tuesday, in conversation with Kenneth Brower – whose book The Starship and the Canoe chronicles Dyson’s reunion with his long-estranged father – Dyson laid out some of the personal themes he would expand upon in Wednesday’s keynote.

While Brower was reared in Berkeley – his mother, Ann, was an editor with UC Press and the oral-history project at Bancroft Library, and his father was legendary mountaineer/conservationist David Brower – the history of Dyson’s time in (and at) Berkeley is brief.

His father and mother, also a mathematician, first brought the family to spend the summer in Berkeley in 1955, and George enrolled as an undergrad here at the age of 16. He had hardly arrived on campus, though, when he headed to British Columbia, where he lived in a treehouse for three years, explored the Inside Passage by kayak and “found my calling as a historian,” investigating the history of kayaks and kayaking.

That led him back to the Bancroft Library, and to the realization that the discipline of history was “remarkably open to amateurism,” as was the Bancroft itself, where he found many of the documents on which his first book, Baidarka, is based.

“On the Same Page” continues with two campus events in October: “Here Today, Majority Tomorrow: Expanding Technological Inclusion” (Monday, Oct. 7), and “On the Future: Beyond Computing” (Tuesday, Oct. 22).