on 31 January 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). The seeds of what are underlying concepts of the digital age (programmable machines, stored values held digitally, and indeed binary numeric representation) are well presented. The result is to raise the stature of Turing, no longer overshadowed by the likes of John Newman.
With the hindsight of more than 50 years, it is hard to imagine the treatment of Turing by not just those around him, but by `society'. Attitudes to homosexuality have changed beyond recognition, and "things would be different now". Where Leavitt is weak is not leading the reader in regard to Turing's death. However, whether suicide or an accident, Turing's death locked his ideas into a time-box from which they took time to be unpacked. Leavitt helps readers to see that they are TURING's ideas.
Peter Morgan (email@example.com)
on 22 December 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.
on 8 January 2007
I was looking forward to reading this book, but was disappointed. Initially the book appears to be solely interested in the fact that Turing was a homosexual, and makes very little attempt to give any insight into the man himself, other than that one part of his life. Later on, a lot of unnecessary detail is provided of the "ticker-tape" approach he proposed in a technical paper. I can only imagine that this was the author showing how much he himself understood. There were large parts of Turing's life skipped over, with a mere word or two supposedly sufficing. All in all, a shame. A superificial view of the life of a deeply thoughtful man.