The title of George Dyson’s latest book about the scientists who worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton during its glory days is a little misleading. The story is not so much about Alan Turing, the man who came up with the idea of the modern computer, but John von Neumann, who did more than anyone else to make it a reality. No matter: like Dyson’s previous books, this is a glorious insight into how science – in this case, computer science – was done at Princeton in the middle decades of the twentieth century. It is as much a story of the personalities involved as of the discoveries they made, and you do not need any knowledge of computers or mathematics to enjoy the ride.
Dyson describes the origin of the Institute itself, before the story proper takes off with the dramatic early life of Hungarian-born von Neumann, leading up to his arrival in Princeton in 1930. Von Neumann was one of the first major scientists to see the way the political wind was blowing