Meticulously researched and packed with not just technological details, but sociopolitical and cultural details as well—the...

That we live in a digital universe is indisputable; how we got there is a mesmerizing tale brilliantly told by science historian Dyson (Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957–1965, 2002, etc.).

The author establishes late 1945 as the birth date of the first stored-program machine, built at the Institute for Advanced Study, established in Princeton in 1932 as a haven for theoreticians. It happened under the watch of the brilliant mathematician John von Neumann, fresh from commutes to Los Alamos where the atom bomb had been built and the hydrogen bomb was only a gleam in Edward Teller’s eye. Dyson makes clear that the motivation for some of the world’s greatest technological advances has always been to perfect instruments of war. Indeed, von Neumann’s colleagues included some who had been at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where a dedicated-purpose computer, ENIAC, had been built to calculate firing tables for anti-aircraft artillery. The IAS computer, MANIAC, was used to determine the parameters governing the fission of an atom device inside an H-bomb that would then ignite the fusion reaction. But for von Neumann and others, the MANIAC was also the embodiment of Alan Turing’s universal machine, an abstract invention in the ’30s by the mathematician who would go on to crack the Nazi’s infamous Enigma code in World War II. In addition to these stories, Dyson discusses climate and genetic-modeling projects programmed on the MANIAC. The use of wonderful quotes and pithy sketches of the brilliant cast of characters further enriches the text. Who knew that eccentric mathematician/logician Kurt Gödel had married a Viennese cabaret dancer?

Meticulously researched and packed with not just technological details, but sociopolitical and cultural details as well—the definitive history of the computer.

Pub Date: March 6, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-375-42277-5

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2012



A quirky wonder of a book.

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020


A magnificent account of a central reality of our times, incorporating deep scientific expertise, broad political and social knowledge, and ethical insight, and Idled with beautifully written biographical sketches of the men and women who created nuclear physics. Rhodes describes in detail the great scientific achievements that led up to the invention of the atomic bomb. Everything of importance is examined, from the discovery of the atomic nucleus and of nuclear fission to the emergence of quantum physics, the invention of the mass-spectroscope and of the cyclotron, the creation of such man-made elements as plutonium and tritium, and implementation of the nuclear chain reaction in uranium. Even more important, Rhodes shows how these achievements were thrust into the arms of the state, which culminated in the unfolding of the nuclear arms race. Often brilliantly, he records the rise of fascism and of anti-Semitism, and the intensification of nationalist ambitions. He traces the outbreak of WW II, which provoked a hysterical rivalry among nations to devise the bomb. This book contains a grim description of Japanese resistance, and of the horrible psychological numbing that caused an unparalleled tolerance for human suffering and destruction. Rhodes depicts the Faustian scale of the Manhattan Project. His account of the dropping of the bomb itself, and of the awful firebombing that prepared its way, is unforgettable. Although Rhodes' gallery of names and events is sometimes dizzying, his scientific discussions often daunting, he has written a book of great drama and sweep. A superb accomplishment.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1986

ISBN: 0684813785

Page Count: 932

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1986

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