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.
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 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 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.
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.
on 1 March 2003
Hodges' biography manages to paint not only the story of Turing the scientist and his contribution to computing and cryptography, but also Turing the man - shy, witty, persecuted for his homosexuality. The scenes - Cambridge, Bletchley Park, Manchester - are all painted in detail, with the part Turing played in the development of mathematics, cryptography and computing clearly explored against personal and historical contexts.
A degree of mathematical literacy helps one to obtain more from this superb biography, but it should all be accessible to the non-specialist. Hodges tells a compelling story in a readable style.