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The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the invention of computers: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer [Paperback]

David Leavitt
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Jun 2007

To solve one of the great mathematical problems of his day, Alan Turing proposed an imaginary programmable calculating machine. But the idea of actually producing a 'thinking machine' did not crystallise until he and his brilliant Bletchley Park colleagues built devices to crack the Nazis' Enigma code, thus ensuring the Allied victory in the Second World War. In so doing, Turing became a champion of artificial intelligence, formulating the famous (and still unbeaten) Turing test that challenges our ideas of human consciousness.

But Turing's work was cut short when, as an openly gay man in a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain, he was apprehended by the authorities and sentenced to a 'treatment' that amounted to chemical castration. Ultimately, it lead to his suicide, and it wasn't until 2013, after many years of campaigning, that he received a posthumous royal pardon.

With a novelist's sensitivity, David Leavitt portrays Turing in all his humanity - his eccentricities, his brilliance, his fatal candour - while elegantly explaining his work and its implications.

Frequently Bought Together

The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the invention of computers: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer + Alan Turing: The Enigma + The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The History of the Wartime Codebreaking Centre by the Men and Women Who Were There
Price For All Three: 20.97

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Product details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Phoenix (1 Jun 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0753822008
  • ISBN-13: 978-0753822005
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 26,849 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


A sympathetic account of Turing's ultimately tragic life (Observer)

Leavitt proovides fascinating insights into cryptography...he conveys both the ingenuity of Turing's creations and the complexity of the man (Daily Telegraph)

Book Description

The story of Alan Turing, the persecuted genius who helped break the Enigma code and create the modern computer, and who received a royal pardon in 2013

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A man both of his time and ahead of his time 31 Jan 2007
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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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The man who won World War II 22 Dec 2008
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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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "The Past Is A Different Country" 31 Oct 2011
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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
very comprehensive and objective.
Published 23 days ago by ian lowry
5.0 out of 5 stars A many-faceted illustration of how Turin and his leap in mathematics...
Here David Leavitt provides a fascinating insight into the mind of a genius – Alan Mathison Turin – the man who invented the computer – the machine that changed the world forever –... Read more
Published 4 months ago by W. Swales
5.0 out of 5 stars Mainly about Mr. Turing, and not his work
If you are looking to mainly read about the WORK of Alan Turing, this book wouldn't be my first recommendation. Read more
Published 8 months ago by northerner
4.0 out of 5 stars mistreated genius
I knew someone who worked in Bletchley Park during World War II, though he steadfastly refused to talk about it. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Mr. D. P. Jay
2.0 out of 5 stars It was not really about Turing for some chapters, mainly various...
I tried reading it but gave up. I am not familiar with mathematical problems and ideas and will be giving it to a charity shop. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Shirley Theiner
5.0 out of 5 stars Favourite book!
This is one of my favourite books!

It goes into some quite heavy detail on some of Turings work, but if you enjoy that sort of thing then you'll love this book. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Limes102
3.0 out of 5 stars A taxing read!
Really wanted to find out more about Alan Turing but this book is very hard going. Probably more for a mathematician than a reader.
Published 17 months ago by ejcrab
5.0 out of 5 stars Xmas gift
Well wrapped arrived on time safely again would recommend to others Left wrapped until Xmas and hope my husband will enjoy reading it
Published 19 months ago by P A Wise
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing
I was expecting to be able to enjoy this book to get an insight into Turing's life before visiting the current exhibition at Manchester Museum. Read more
Published 21 months ago by lizzyorks
1.0 out of 5 stars Not about the invention of computers
The book does not describe the invention of computers, but clearly goes through the unfortunate circumstances of Alan Turing. It was a disappointing read.
Published on 21 July 2012 by M. J. Estell
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