Thanks to a call from my friend John, I got out of the house Monday night to hear someone talk, something I did all the time a decade ago, before a) I had kids, and b) I was lucky enough to have a job where a lot of those people came to talk to us around a Starbucks table or into a microphone I was holding. I don't have that job anymore (I do still have kids), and what I miss perhaps most about it is getting to listen to those fascinating people when they come to town. But it took going out and seeing a smart author speak to make me realize how much I missed it.
George Dyson was the one talking, at Town Hall (a former cathedral of sorts itself, its great vault having been built by the Christian Scientists almost a hundred years ago). I only knew the most superficial things about him (mainly whom he is related to), but his story (dropping out of high school to live in a tree house and build kayaks and then returning to the family business in a way by becoming a self-taught historian of science and technology) and his new book (Turing's Cathedral, on the development of the computer) both seemed promising. I still only know slightly less superficial things about him and his work now, but a few seem worth noting here.
First is his book, and very first is its cover. I'm sometimes skeptical of book covers that merely hinge on a witty idea, but this one is both witty and, well, as profound as a book cover can be. It doesn't all come across that well online, but the cover is designed to look like an old punchcard, with--are they called chads in this context too?--real holes in the dust cover, and the holes peek through to the image on the cover board itself, the face of Alan Turing. But the aspect I love is the way the punches also, to me at least, evoke the cathedral of the title--or if not a classic Gothic cathedral then a starker medieval fortress, with slits for windows distributed across a stone face. I'm not even sure what that connection specifically means: perhaps just a sense, cutting across history, of the mystery and impersonal beauty of human ambition.
It was hardly a surprise to hear that the cover is by Peter Mendelsund, the celebrated young Knopf and Pantheon designer who was one of those fascinating people I got to interview back at Amazon (though not in person).
And the book itself I came away with a hunger to read. My friend John said it sounded like the equivalent on the computer side of Richard Rhodes's Making of the Atomic Bomb (another book I'd love to finally get to): in both cases there is a thoroughly dramatic story of breathtaking scientific breakthroughs being engineered into practical, world-changing applications by outsized personalities, in large part under the urgency of world war. And of course there was a lot of overlap between the two projects (and those who worked on them), though the weight of the computing story falls more heavily after the war.
What fascinated John (a developer himself) was the way that artificial intelligence seemed nearly invented from scratch by these thinkers, and what fascinated me was the idea, which Dyson raised, that the path our computers took (which I don't know enough about to even define) was just one of many possible ones, and that what looked like parallel dead ends to that path may yet have potential as future breakthroughs.
And what I enjoyed about the evening was a sort of familial sense about it all. Dyson obviously comes from a family of scientists and technologists (he grew up at the Institute for Advanced Study, where much of his story is set), and since he's lived in the Seattle area for decades he knew a lot of people at the reading, but in a larger sense there was a feeling in the room, based both on the heads I saw nodding at various points in his story and on the questions (often really statements with question marks) at the end, that many of the people there had personal connections to various aspects of his story: to the technology, or to the people themselves. And that sense echoed Dyson's approach to the subject, which seems as interested in the personal stories of the scientists (and engineers and secretaries) who worked on these breakthroughs as in the technology itself. It was a reminder that the story of technology is as human a story as any.
I also appreciated, when so much of what I read (and write) is both produced and consumed in bite-sized morsels, hearing from someone who has been devoted to a project for years and years (he said he turned in the book about six years past his publisher's original deadline). The Town Hall site has a video of a similar talk Dyson gave at Google a few years back, while still in the middle of his giant project, a meandering slide-show tour through the images of his book: