One of the reasons I liked the book is that for many years I used a book entitled The Starship and the Canoe, written by Kenneth Brower, in classes I taught. The book is a double biography of George Dyson and his father Freeman Dyson, a famous physicist, and is a short and entertaining read. At the time the book was written (1983), Freeman was involved with Project Orion, a proposed giant spacecraft to be propelled by the explosions of atomic bombs, and George was living in a tree in Canada studying and building Umiaks (native canoes) from modern materials. The two were a fascinating study, because there were similarities in their thinking and passion, but George was clearly on a much different path socially. This book by George shows amazing convergence. George grew up on the grounds of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where his father was a faculty member, and is now an historian of technology, and is at home with advanced scientific and technological material. Since his sister, Esther, is famous as first a pundit and now an investor in the computer world, the Dysons are clearly an outstanding family.
This background gave George Dyson great insight into the Institute for Advanced Study, and an unusual opportunity to access people and archives. The book contains a large cast of fascinating characters and portrays them much more intimately than is usually the case when scientists, mathematicians, and engineers are tossed into a book about a major breakthrough. The result is an enjoyable read. It is also a terrific insight into the interaction between mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, the nature of ambitious technical projects, and the role that government, and in particular the military, plays in technical developments that later play a major role in civilian life. The implication in the book is that the development of the hydrogen bomb, and the related need for massive calculations, played a major role in the influence that computers now have in our lives, for better or worse.
And in fact, he ends with some worries – one being whether we will continually assign thinking to computers until we reach the point where machines think, but humans no longer do. More details on the book can be found by clicking on the Amazon icon to the right.