George Dyson was at Town Hall in Seattle last night doing a talk about computer pioneer John von Neumann. I saw Dyson about a year ago in the same venue talking about the Baidarka (the Aleut kayak).
It was a fascinating talk in a number of ways. First off, Dyson is in a unique position for a scientific historian in that his father, Freeman Dyson, is a scientist so George has actually known many of the people and places he’s talking about. For instance when introducing the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton he can go to a slide of himself as a small child in front of the main building and tell you that it was a really boring place to grow up with all the ivory tower types busy thinking their deep thoughts. And knowing these people he has access to papers that an anonymous historian might have trouble getting to.
But the star of the talk, of course was von Neumann and the work to build the first digital computer. Dyson is sort of a magpie when it comes to shiny bits of scientific trivia so his talk and associated slide show was full of wonderful little tidbits like photos of pages from the system logbook of that first computer and hand-drawn diagrams of and-gates and other circuitry and memos from ivory tower types to the administration complaining of all the engineers taking over the place and floor plans of the IAS showing the offices of Einstein, Oppenheimer, von Neumann, and GÃ¶del all within steps of each other. Lots of funny quotes too, offered up without commentary.
While he didn’t say it outright, I’m sure there’s a book coming with all this great stuff. One of the things I’m most looking forward to hearing more about is the role of von Neumann’s wife Klara. Dyson has been able to read the letters the two wrote (they were almost never in the same place at the same time) and how Klara learned to program the new computer and was intimately involved in the work they were doing with the machine in those early days (bomb simulations).
Another thing he mentioned is that on his death, von Neumann left a sealed box which wasn’t to be opened for 50 years after his death. That milestone passes in just about a week from now, so there may be some interesting revelations coming soon.
The talk gave a great feel for what an amazing convergence of talent and inspiration there was at that time and how much the decisions made by these people have informed our modern technology (the architecture of that first 40-bit computer is essentially identical in broad outline to all the computers we work with every day). And yet rather than making it seem like a one of a kind event, I came away feeling like there must be similar convergences happening now or yet to come.
One of my favorite quotes from the evening came in the Q&A section when Dyson made the comment that “writing a book is 10% inspiration and 90% not being distracted by the internet.”
I made a stealth audio recording of the talk that’s reasonably listenable. If you’re interested, leave a comment or email and I’ll send you a link to download it. It’d be better with video of his slides–there are lots of spontaneous bursts of laughter as the audience read some quote up on the screen–but the audio is interesting enough.