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The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the invention of computers Hardcover – 8 Jun 2006

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Hardcover, 8 Jun 2006

Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Orion; 1st Edition edition (8 Jun. 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0297846558
  • ISBN-13: 978-0297846550
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 3 x 22 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,149,598 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


a painful and slightly deranged story, a case history to illustrate Freud's notion that modern man is a 'prosthetic god', immortailised by his technological appliances. It is guaranteed to make you feel tenderly towards the martyred Turing (Peter Conrad THE OBSERVER )

[Leavitt's] description of Turing's great paper on computable numbers really does explain what it was about and why it was important. (THE TIMES )

Leavitt's biography will give even the most innumerate reader an idea of the beautiful and fascinating world he is missing. (THE ECONOMIST )

Turing... showed that no mathematical system can provide a general method for testing the truth or falsehood of its theorems. (THE SPECTATOR )

A thoroughly compelling read. (CITY A.M. )

Leavitt provides a sympathetic novelist's take on a brilliant eccentric... a picture of the fragility of human genius. (THE GUARDIAN )

Alan Turing's story will still fascinate those who come to it through this book. (THE INDEPENDENT )

a peculiarly British tragedy, where genius is subordinate to the status quo and conformity prized above all. (TIME OUT )

Book Description

The story of the persecuted genius who helped create the modern computer.

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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

42 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Mr P R Morgan on 31 Jan. 2007
Format: Paperback
To describe someone as "ahead of his time" is an over-used cliché. However, in Turing's case, it is appropriate in two ways. Firstly, his ideas took years to work out, and his contemporise did not realise the significance of his research. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, if he had lived in a later era, his complicated personal life would not have attracted the attention of the police, and brought about the early curtailing of the dream.

David Leavitt has written an overdue appraisal of Turing that gives him credit for his successes, rather than ascribe the kudos to others because it was safer to do so. This continues the re-acclimatisation of this pioneer into a place of prominence in two fields - the research background surrounding origins of computing, and the code breaking activities that took place in Bletchley Park during World War II.

It would be untrue to intimate that Turing and his colleagues at Bletchley Park "won the war", but their efforts were nevertheless of huge significance. Leavitt gives a broad overview of the activities, and points the reader to further sources. The account is perhaps romanticised, with the place of pure luck glossed over somewhat, but the scale of the code-breaking operation is realised.

The description of the `Turing machine' is well presented, although not for the faint-hearted as it is necessarily very abstract thinking (again, Turing was ahead of his time). Leavitt successfully weaves Turing into a position both as a man ahead of his time, and as a man of his time (influenced by the Hilbert program in mathematics, and Kurt Gödel's revolution in logical consistency or otherwise).
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Rotgut VINE VOICE on 31 Oct. 2011
Format: Paperback
When perusing this biography, the back-cover quote from an "Economist" review did reassure me that my lack of mathematical skills would not make this book inaccessible : "will give even the most innumerate reader an idea of the beautiful... world he is missing." Of course, on reflection, it is possible to read this quote in quite the opposite way, maybe the reviewer was warning the innumerate reader that this book WILL be impossible for him to grasp, and show him what he's missing?

If that is what the "Economist" meant to convey, I agree completely. I found the descriptions of the problems and solutions Alan Turing was involved with more of less incomprehensible. Obviously, this is completely my fault and some of the ideas that are being discussed here can only be simplified so much!

As to the description of Turing's life, this is an incredible story of a man contributing massively to the war effort, and to the shaping of the post War world, who was treated with almost unbelievable cruelty by the society which owed him so much. It ends, with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy with our hero's flamboyant, theatrical suicide.

Leavitt tells this story straight, but, for me, many interesting aspects,are dealt with with little or no detail, e.g. Turing's weirdly credulous belief in pseudo-science (p255) or the suggestion his suicide may have been faked (p278.) Perhaps most unforgivingly, while visiting the famous Bletchley Park code breaking centre, Leavitt actually meets a woman who knew his subject (p190) but seems to have made little or no effort to talk to her properly.

The strongest feeling reading this book is shock, shock that homosexuality was treated as a serious sex crime, and treated by chemical castration as recently as 1954. Really, "the past is a different country; They do things differently there."
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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Born Again Cruciverbalist on 22 Dec. 2008
Format: Paperback
This book is not a biography in the conventional sense of the word but the subtitle "Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer' is a fair description of the content. Far more pages are devoted to technical matters that to the man himself.

If you are a pure mathematician, you will already know most of the technical matters; if you are not, you may have to read some chapters two or three times and still not understand all the detail. Even so, you will at least understand why Turing can be described as one of the most important pioneers (perhaps the most important pioneer) of modern computers.

There are some irritating errors in the book, e.g., the word 'principle' instead of 'principal' and some missing words. Computer spell checkers are no substitute for a good proof reader.

The author seems to take great pains to interpret many things that Turing wrote, said or did as evidence of his homosexuality. Maybe this is because the author himself is described in a website as "a gay author". There is no doubt that Turing was homosexual but he was also an "oddball". From the descriptions of him in this book it seems to me that he exhibited some (but not all) of the symptoms of Aspergers Syndrome.

If Turing had been born in 1942 instead of 1912, he might still be alive today and living a happier life. But then, who else would have done the work he did at Bletchley Park to beat the Enigma code? Who else would have written about the Universal Machine which formed the foundation of the modern computer? Without Turing, we could now be living in a very different world.

Thanks to Churchill and other well known leaders, we won World War II. Without Turing, we might have lost it. But there are no statues to Turing. He deserves more than our grateful thanks.
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