This is a book that tackles two aspects of Alan Turing's life; his logical thinking and mathematical ability, and his personal life and death. On the former it delves into great detail, and is an excellent account of what Turing did, his lifelong fascination with cyphers and how the Enigma encoded messages were famously cracked, at various stages, with his help, by the workers at Bletchley Park. This stuff requires considerable effort by the reader who wants to understand fully, and many readers will not want to go very far with it, happy to know only the outline facts, but it is good that Hodges, a mathematician, has put it all down for reference. Hodges the mathematician, also does a good job of putting across Turing's thinking and attitude to life. Turing became interested in the problem of life, and the question of whether human beings are machines very early on, after reading a basic book on the subject, and his actions were motivated by his intense need to think in a 'pure' way, without the distractions of everyday life, and human relationships which, to his mind, are too often illogical. This is a better way to see Turing than to simply say, as is current fashion, 'he was Autistic', or 'he had Asperger's', or even 'he was gifted'. I think he just taught himself to think well, and sought to keep his mind uncluttered by everyday modes of thought.
When it comes to Turing's personal life and death though, I think Hodges is the wrong man to listen to. Himself a homosexual, like Turing, it might be thought that he is in a good position to understand the man, and in some ways he is, but it is important to realise that this book was written almost a quarter of a century ago, in a Britain that was perhaps closer to the the Britain Turing knew than the one we now view him from. Ten years earlier, Hodges had written the 'Gay Liberation Pamphlet with Downcast Gays' (available on the internet) - he had a chip on his shoulder and leaves us in no doubt that he considered homosexual men to be downtrodden members of society who needed to throw off their chains. The Alan Turing we are given in the book is largely portrayed as such, and the reader is led to the conclusion that he killed himself as a result of society's unwarranted ill treatment of a man who should be seen as a hero. It's probably largely down to Hodges that Turing came to be given a posthumous royal pardon and apology from Prime Minister Gordon Brown quite recently, and the widely acclaimed 2014 film 'The Imitation Game', appears to be very effectively shaping public perception of Turing as something of a martyr. I think Hodges has given us a very one-sided view of Turing, a view from the world of the resentful homosexual.
I can empathise with Hodges point of view, but it is a blinkered one, and Turing was not like Hodges. Turing, from the evidence available, did not complain, did not concern himself with whether he was oppressed sexually, he just got on with living his life, tackling the many tractable problems that fascinated him, as best he could in a world he did not profess to understand, or particularly care about. What will stand out, I suggest, to most people is the fact that Turing, was careless in forming sexual liasons which were likely to lead him into trouble. We cannot help but wonder what discussions took place between his 'minders' (for surely he must have been carefully watched by the security services he was so vital to) who must surely have regarded him as a huge liability. In his pamphlet, Hodges has much to say about the difficulties faced by homosexual men who were unable to have a sexual life without breaking the law back then, but does not enter into any meaningful discussion about respecting the society they live in and it's values. He tells us that, free from the shackles of marriage rituals and conventions many homosexual men want only to enjoy sex with multiple partners without commitment; that they may keep friendship and sex separate, with different people. This is something many heterosexuals would like too, but the world doesn't work like that, and promiscuity leads to problems, which include jealousy and very real potential for blackmail or leaking of secrets. He also tells us, in this book, that Turing, like many homosexuals, finds himself especially attracted to the mass of working men, and that this was one of the attractions of Manchester. Those watching over him must have been terrified when they saw him, holder of the nation's greatest secrets, getting involved with such men, and then becoming victim to a bizarre break-in involving them.
The official verdict on Turing's death was suicide, but while this was a verdict that suited Hodges, it was one that many who knew him, especially his mother, refused to accept. In a normal case of suicide some supporting evidence of motive would be expected; depression, problems, ill health, but none of these applied. Right up to his death Turing was active and motivated, and jovial with friends. The hormone treatment, which he had chosen rather than prison so that he could get on with life, had been terminated a year previous, and he was working on new projects, some top secret, and running. The possibility that he was murdered seems a very obvious alternative, and the fact that a founder member of the Bletchley Park trust, Roger Bristow, is now claiming that the coroner wrote a note saying, 'death appears to be due to violence' is cause to reconsider Hodges conclusion. Would society still regard a man like Turing, who happened to have the skills it needed to help the war effort, as a hero, even if it turned out that he lead a hedonistic and promiscous life that made him a huge security liability and put the country in danger, while many lesser men, who had not signed the official secrets act, were living quiet lives and heeding the constant message that 'careless talk costs lives'? We may discover more if Bristow publishes his book.
This is a book full of fascinating facts, all the more so for me because, although the name Turing has been well known to me since an early age, I never quite realised how close I came to his legacy. Seeking a job on leaving University, I got an interview with Elliot computers before taking up a job with Ferranti, both early players in computer development. Made redundant the day I was due to start, I joined the Post Office research centre at Dollis Hill, working on AI, pattern recognition for postcodes, with 'Doc' Alan Coombs as joint head of division - he had worked on 'Colossus' after Tommy Flowers but of course we were never told that! Oh for a time machine, to travel back to 1968 and venture more into the the corridors of Dollis Hill, where I wonder if I might have just come across traces of that Colossus work. As an electronics engineer I knew well the work of Shannon (information and noise) and Nyquist (stability criteria), both of whom Turing met in the US. Much later, I would read 'On Agression', by Konrad Lorenz, founder of ethology, who it turns out Turing also met, and my interest would turn to genetics and morphology (Turing's last project). But then, if I had a time machine, I might urge Turing to talk to Lorenz about imprinting, and society, and 'Civilised Man's Seven Deadly Sins'. Turing's ideas about life were very simplistic; he was interested in hormones for example, and their role in sex, but he seems to have lacked any concept of society, altruism, pair-bonding, or imprinting. Lorenz knew all about such things, but would Turing have been receptive to such ideas and able to understand them? If he had, he might have marvelled at Konrad's experiments with geese (they came to regard him as mother and mate), and wondered whether his own homosexuality might be the result of faulty imprinting at key receptive stages in life. He might also have realised that his question, 'can computers think, feel, love' needed more than pure logic to answer - in needed an understanding of drives, instincts, triggers, and the role these played in the evolution of the brain for survival - all Lorenz's domain. Armed with such knowledge he might have gone on to discover far greater things than how to make a computer - that was dependant more on developments in memory and processing than on logic, and was best left to the engineers in the end. He might have been the man to crack the workings of the brain; something we are still a long way from achieving, and he would have been fascinated by developments in morphology based on chemical gradients (which he was experimenting with), and in Epigenetics as a form of temporary storage within the genome. But then, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and we have no time machine:-)