on 12 May 2010
This is an immense book; a staggeringly thorough biography; the author appears to have left no stone unturned in his search for the real man behind the 'enigma'. Alan Turing emerges as a man who was ahead of his time in his ideas of machine intelligence and his understanding of his own sexuality; but one who was paradoxically also 'born too late', for the breadth of his interests might have sat better in the Victorian era than within the twentieth century cult of the expert.
It is definitely worth reading if you can commit the necessary time and attention to it (I read it while recovering from surgery). Not only is it a thick volume with very small print, but it abounds with highly technical descriptions of Turing's work. Otherwise, wait a couple of years from the time of this review and there will no doubt be a profusion of potted biographies to celebrate Turing's centenary year in 2012.
This is a lengthy book and, unfortunately, not the easiest on the reader. It is a story of brilliance intermixed with moments of tragedy and success, all of which contributed towards Turing's personality.
Essentially, Turing was a mathematician who was found to have a talent for solving complex mathematical problems, a talent much needed at the critical point just before WWII and during it. For the reader it is not necessary to understand the mathematics in order to help understand the man. Unfortunately the writer appears also to be a mathematician who deems it necessary to delve into the principles of the complex equations needed to solve the Enigma problem. These complicate the book and the story within.
I had tried to read this book on more than a single instance and each time I get a little further but the central portion is the most complex and seems insurmountable, thanks to the maths. I had previously read other authors' attempts at Turing's story, some possibly pre-dating the 1970's release of the Enigma secret and without the mathematic content, which made them easier to understand Turing's life and lifestyle choices.
This is probably the most complete telling of Turing's life, but certainly not the easiest for many potential readers. It may incidentally interest those studying mathematics at degree or higher levels.
on 6 April 2015
There's a lot to be said for 'The Imitation Game', the film starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. It is well-acted, and the story is gripping, focusing as it does on two aspects of Turing's life which lend themselves particularly to dramatic presentation: his wartime work breaking the German Enigma naval code, and his homosexuality.
That he was homosexual is key to understanding him. This wasn't in any sense a preference of his, it wasn't a casual toying with an alternative sexuality in a bisexual man. Turing was fundamentally and assertively gay, and that was an essential part of his makeup. The film's treatment of his relationship with Joan Clarke, and their attempt at an engagement that was doomed from the outset, is well handled (not least because Clarke's role is played by Keira Knightley, a far better actor than many give her credit for), and certainly makes not the slightest concession to the long-outdated notion that the right woman can somehow "cure" a man's homosexuality.
Equally, Turing's shameful treatment by the authorities, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain, is effectively portrayed by the film. We see the net closing on him, from the moment when he unfortunately informed the police of an attempted burglary at his home, to their growing suspicions of him as he becomes evasive about the people he knows were involved, to the moment when the tables turn and, instead of being able to count on the police to act for him over the break-in, he finds himself their victim for the much more serious offence of "gross indecency" with the man behind the burglary, in fact his lover.
The film does however make a clear link between his persecution, leading to his being condemned to undergoing chemical castration, and his suicide, glossing over the strange gap of over a year between the ending of the chemical treatment and his death. That's a fault Andrew Hodges' biography, 'Alan Turing: the Enigma', avoids. Despite it, the film overall deals with Turing's gayness intelligently, especially given that it only has two hours to tell the whole story.
The matter of the battle against Enigma is well treated too - as far as it goes. The problem is that it plays entirely into the myth that has been created around the cryptanalysts' battle against the Nazis, which is based on the premiss that it on its own broke the back of the German U-boat attack in the Atlantic. Now it was certainly a key element of the eventual Allied victory, but then so was investment in aircraft to close the `Atlantic Gap' (the middle third of transatlantic journeys which couldn't be protected from the air in the early part of the war), the introduction of airborne radar allowing aircrews to spot submarines on the surface, and the invention of the Leigh light, slung under an aircraft to light up the target for the final part of an anti-submarine attack at night. Even improvements in ship-borne armaments, such as forward-firing depth charges, played a key role.
The myth also stresses the vital importance of being able to read German signals, without generally mentioning that German intelligence read British signals throughout the war. Numerous convoys suffered substantial damage, because signals warning them to change course to avoid known locations of U-boats, were being read by the Germans.
So the film's claim that the work against Enigma, certainly spearheaded by Turing, shortened the war by two years and saved 14 million lives, is impossible to demonstrate or justify.
Hodges' biography gives a much more balanced view. Turing's war work was crucial and contributed significantly to Allied efforts; but Hodges never claims that it was peculiarly responsible for the victory in the Atlantic.
More to the point, the book covers other areas of Turing's life which perhaps lend themselves less well to dramatic recreation on screen, but arguably represent more significant contributions.
Quite simply, he was one of the world's finest pure mathematicians at a time when pure mathematics was undergoing rapid change and making vital progress. In particular, Turing got involved in the question of "undecidability". Even speaking as a complete layman, I have never been able to get over the concept, demonstrated by Kurt Gödel, that mathematics may include questions that are simply undecidable: you can disprove the answer "yes" and also the answer "no". There is no answer.
Turing did serious and important work in this domain. But what was perhaps most important about it is that it led to his great breakthrough: the notion of a universal machine, or what soon became known as a "universal Turing machine". Today we are used to the notion of a computer, so it is hard to imagine the powerfully innovative nature of this idea: such a machine was universal because it was not designed to undertake a single task, such as break a code, or add up a column of numbers, or analyse a radio signal. It was designed to do any of them, and a great many more besides.
It could be universal in this way because it would be programmable. And its basic form of operation would be simple: it would read a series of instructions one by one, perhaps from a tape, and it would react to them depending on the state it found itself in at the time.
But from this simple form of operation it was possible to imagine a huge number of possible applications of machines - from which has blossomed the spectacular growth of the computer and the massive impact it has had on our lives. It is only thanks to the notion of a universal Turing machine that I can type this review on the device I'm using; it's only thanks to it that the network exists out there on which I can post it; and only thanks to it that you have a device from which to read it.
The "bombes" used at Bletchley Park by Turing's team to try to defeat the German Enigma code drew heavily on the principles he'd developed in the concept of his machine. But I would argue that his contribution to the opening of the Computer age, or more properly Information age, ultimately had a far greater beneficial impact on the world than the bombes themselves - important though they were in their time.
Even the notion of an "Imitation Game" is drawn from this work: it is the opening theme of a paper of Turing's, cited by Hodges, 'Computing Machinery and Intelligence' (Mind 49, 443-40). The imitation game is a theoretical game in which Turing shows that it is conceivable to build a machine whose behaviour is indistinguishable, as far as thought is concerned, from a human's. This is an area to which mathematics had long drawn him: the question of what thought is, and more specifically, whether it is possible for a machine to think. If it is impossible to tell the behaviours apart, then how can we safely conclude that the machine isn't thinking?
I've read criticisms of Hodges' biography that suggest it's over-long, or focuses too much on Turing's mathematics, or too much on his homosexuality. My view? We need the length to do justice to the subject. And we need the mathematics, we need the theory of the Turing machine, as we need the homosexuality, to do justice to the man himself and to understand him in the round.
And such is the importance of his contribution to our lives, that I feel he deserves no less.
I cannot recall my first meeting with Alan Turing (in books) but I have been fascinated since, on two levels; firstly, Bletchley Park was so shrouded in secrecy (still seems to be to some extent) that many people do not fully appreciate the role its people played in bringing the war to an early end, with fewer lives lost. Secondly, Alan Turing's genius is still not understood by many of us who benefit from it in many ways, e.g. he pioneered computing and helped to ensure our lives are lived in our current freedom.
Excessive praise? I think not.
Having worked with gifted people at one time, I came to understand many of their differences and the difficulty some people had with them and their strange expectations of their normality while being gifted. Alan Turing suffered in similar ways. There is a clear logic in cycling with a gas mask on while suffering from and trying to prevent hay fever - after all, he was trying to crack a complex code. In a large organisation, I should imagine tea mugs annoyingly went missing all the time, especially when time wasted looking for one was lives lost. Solution? Simple - chain it to the radiator.
This is an excellent biography which sheds a great deal of light on Turing's unusual character and some of the technical issues involved in code-breaking and early computer building, both of which the author explains well.
The post-war social complexities are dealt with too, making this a fascinating book. In some ways, it helps to explain Gordon Brown's partial apology many years later; when one considers the services for which knighthoods are awarded now, it leaves one seriously wondering about some post-war decisions.
on 13 April 2008
This was a thoroughly enjoyable read that shed enormous light on a figure I knew about only dimly before, having studied Turing Machines as part of my degree. This is a good book on many levels, provoking thought about the history of computing as well as that of Britain 1939-1954. Above all it is a book about a complex individual who did not fit easily into society for a number of reasons. In this sense the book has something to say to us all.
on 20 September 2014
The `troubled genius' as a character is something of a cliché but in the case of Alan Turing it's an accurate description. His influence on the world was profound, even if acknowledgement only came years after his death. As the central member of the code-breaking team at Bletchley Park in WWII, he, more than anyone, was responsible for breaking the German `enigma' codes and consequently perhaps saving Britain from defeat in the Battle of the Atlantic. He was also, relatedly, responsible for the development of some of the first computers ever to be built; a professional interest that carried on into the post-war years.
However, while those two towering achievements are what posterity remembers him for, they were far from the whole story, as Andrew Hodges makes clear in this fascinating and detailed book. Turing had already made a significant mark on the mathematical world by his mid-twenties, including the development of the concept of what's now known as a `Turing machine', which together with other related work, laid the foundations for electronic computing and programming. Similarly, he was still pushing at the boundaries of maths and science when his untimely death cut short that work.
That whole life story is fascinating and Hodges doesn't short-change the reader by concentrating excessively on the famous bits; the book is at least as much about understanding the man as understanding his work. That's a good thing as the detail of both the maths and the code-breaking can be hard to follow at times and while written for the layman, it will certainly help if the reader is familiar with maths through to at least A level.
The man himself is not quite the enigma of the book's title. In many ways, he was an archetypal caricature of an academic (his nickname at Bletchley Park was `the prof', which was more than simply a tribute to his skill). Hodges paints a convincing picture of a man who was happy in his own company providing he had something to interest him, sensitive, socially shy, politically naïve (of academic and administrative matters, he had little interest in the workings of government except as it directly affected him), unempathetic but with a child-like innocence and enthusiasm. What's more, he shows what formed that character and how it developed over time. Certainly he was a private man and there's much that we don't know but rather like Turing and the other Enigma, Hodges decodes him skilfully.
Turing was also homosexual; a fact that Hodges makes a central strand of the book's narrative. Should it be? I think probably yes: there's no doubt that Turing defined himself in those terms and required others to accept him on them too. It's perhaps right that the reader should be obliged to.
A word of warning: this is a long book, running to over 550 pages of small-type (including prefaces), and is at times demanding of the reader. My advice would be to persevere through those sections. There are rarely any technical parts which it's essential to understand though it's an advantage to do so. That said, Hodges is right to have confidence in his readers to at least give that subject matter a go.
That kind of heaviness is, on the other hand, frequently lightened by Hodges' language. Time and again he draws analogy with what might be called children's fantasy-horror: Alice in Wonderland is a common reference point, as is the Wizard of Oz (both appropriately in the circumstances). There's a wonderful dry wit running through of which I expect Turing would have approved.
The critic's quote on the front cover describes the book as "one of the finest scientific biographies ever written". I'd concur. It's an outstanding study of a man, his work and his times.
on 15 May 2014
I started work in computers in 1962 and was interested to know the Alan Turing story. I was also a friend of some of the Manchester University/Ferranti team building their computers in the late 1950's so was aware of his influence. Fifty years on I wanted to know more.
The book is a scholarly, well researched book and gives a fascinating insight into the life of this genius and his contribution to the creation of computers and computing. It is absolutely comprehensive in all aspects of Alan's life and in particular the different intellectual areas he explored. There are parts of the book I had to 'skip read' as I don't have the mathematical/scientific knowledge to understand the debate between the various theories explored.
However absolutely a worthwhile read. He was a genius and a polymath - at time misunderstood and ignored but made a huge contribution to the technology that is part of our lives
on 24 January 2015
This remains the outstanding book on Alan Turing and although there are now plenty of books about the work of Bletchley Park there are still few books which are genuinely about Alan Turing as a human being. This book is a deeply compassionate and affectionate study yet it is not a hagiography and the picture which emerges of Turing is complex, multi-layered and recognises the more awkward aspects of a fascinating life. Something to make clear is that this is a biography of Alan Turing, not a history of Bletchley Park and some readers may be surprised at how little of the book is given to cracking the Enigma code and Turing's work at Bletchley Park.
The book considers Turing's life from childhood through to his tragic death, some have criticised the length of the sections covering his childhood and school days but these are essential in trying to understand Turing the human being. Turing's sexuality is a theme running through the book and unlike many studies which downplay his homosexuality and prefer not to dwell on it beyond offering the usual platitudes on his persecution this book sees it as absolutely essential to any effort to understand Turing as a human being. There are two qualities which raise this book above any others on Turing in my view, one is the fact that the author is not afraid of Turing's sexuality, the other is that the book actually tries to explain Turing's mathematical and computer science ideas. There is a danger that unless readers have a certain understanding of maths and logic these passages may be intimidating and incomprehensible however it is a real pleasure to read a book on Turing which does not reduce explanations of his work to a lowest common denominator such as to render it valueless. As a general comment, this book is not the easiest book to read, that may sound like a criticism but I do not mean it to be so. The book demands attention and the reader will have to invest a certain effort in reading it, that means iot is not the sort of passive absrorption experience of some biographies but the result is a vastly more rewarding experience that genuinely informs and educates.
The book shows that Turing's work was both much more and mmuch less than the popular conception. Much less in that his work at Bletchley Park was absolutely not the story of Turing's genius single handedly breaking German codes,the book acknolwedges the work of others at Bletchley Park such as Newman and Flowers and Turing's role in developing Colossus and breaking the Lorenz code was minor. Indeed after early 1943 Turing faded into the background. That is not to denigrate his contribution which was absolutely critical but it is important to recognise that Bletchley Park was much, much more than just Alan Turing. Much more in that the theory of computable numbers and the universal machine are placed in a much wider context and his post war work with NPL and at Manchester are given due attention.
This really is a wonderful book, it treats Turing as a human being and presents a rounded, complete picture.
on 31 December 2013
Having studied a little of Turing's mathematics at university (my PhD thesis was based on Turing machines), I was interested to read more about the man and his scientific work. This book was advertised with such comments as "One of the finest scientific biographies ever written" and "...it is hard to imagine a more thoughtful and warm biography than this one" which led me to believe that this would be an absorbing and informative read.
I was wrong on both counts. This book was undoubtedly the most boring and dull scientific biography - no, change that - biography of ANY kind that I have ever read (and yes, I've read quite a lot).
My main objection to the book was that the author did not seem to understand the difference between interesting and relevant material, and totally dull and pointless material. The book includes pretty much every detail that the author could find out about Turing, to a level of detail that could only interest someone with an manic obsession. I am convinced that if he could have found evidence of what Turing ate for breakfast, he would have included a day-by-day account of this as well.
Whilst that was annoying, at least it was connected to Turing. What was far worse was the rambling off into tenuously-connected subjects that weren't even particularly interesting, never mind relevant. We were treated to a diverse discourse on politics, human development and any other subject that the author could find to pad out the book. Had he kept to the point, and only included subjects where there was something relevant to Turing and his life, the book would have been about half the size, and a lot better for it. As it is, I got thoroughly bored at regular intervals.
Some have commented on the heavy mathematical nature of the book. I feel this is yet another example of the author's lack of understanding of his audience. He would freely move from some advanced mathematical subject to something totally light and superficial, then on to an in-depth political analysis, and then back to the start again, all several times on one page. This meant that I couldn't even skip the bits that did not interest me, as the scientific bits (which did interest me) were hopelessly interwoven with the irrelevant ramblings about other subjects.
All in all, one of the most boring books I've read in a long time. By contrast, I ordered The Cogwheel Brain at the same time as this book, and the difference between the two was about as great as it could be. Where this book was overly long and full of irrelevancies, The Cogwheel Brain was beautifully written, contained just enough material to keep you interested, and never wandered off the subject. I couldn't put that book down. By contrast, I had to push myself to pick this one up.
I'm very happy for those that enjoyed this book, but for me it was very dull and boring, and a waste of time and money. I would not recommend this book to anyone.
on 16 August 2012
This comprehensive biography is certainly detailed. It is, perhaps, the most thorough biography I've read. This allows a great insight into the character and intelligence of Turing, but it did quickly become unnecessarily dense in parts, and felt like it was veering off at a tangent by placing Turing's academic work in a wider context than was really necessary. I don't think the book needed to explain some of the mathematical concepts in quite the detail it did, nor did it need to explain in fine detail the sequelae of those concepts as discovered by others.
I was also a little uncomfortable with the degree of subjectiveness in this description of his life. Clearly, it is impossible for any biography to be written from a totally objective stand-point, but it is clear that Hodges stands in awe of Turing, and constantly tries to explain and justify anything that could be seen as a fault in him. There were times when motives and opinions seemed to have been assigned to Turing's actions without a clear explanation given as to how Hodges had derived these, which made me question their veracity. I'm also awed of Turing and think he's a giant of our age, but even I found the warmth, bordering on sycophancy, of this book a little overbearing. I think the point would have actually been made more strongly had the reader been left to draw their own conclusions from a more objective description of the events.
I was disappointed with some of the omissions of this book. Turing was clearly a man with a strong sense of morality and ethics, and yet cryptography - perhaps his best-known skill - has inherent within it the ethical complexity of choosing when to act on intelligence, and when to ignore it and effectively sacrifice people in order to maintain the illusion that the code has not been broken. This, to me, is one of the most profoundly interesting parts of the work completed at Bletchley, and of cryptography, yet this is given relatively short shrift in this biography. I feel sure that Turing would have reflected on this point, and probably had interesting things to say about it, so it seems a shame that they aren't discussed here. Perhaps this reflects a wider criticism of the book - it's difficult at times to pick out Turing's character amongst the reams of detailed mathematical and computational theory. That said, I think the story and an impression of the character of Turing does manage to shine through over the course of the book as a whole, even if it is hard-going in parts.