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"The Past Is A Different Country"
on 31 October 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."