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Man Who Knew Too Much [Hardcover]

David Leavitt

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From Publishers Weekly

Hounded by authorities and peers alike, British mathematician Alan Turing committed suicide in 1954 by biting into a cyanide-laced apple. A groundbreaking thinker in the field of pure math, a man principally responsible for breaking the Enigma code used by the Germans during WWII and the originator of the ideas that led to the invention of the computer, Turing was also an avowed homosexual at a time when such behavior flew in the face of both convention and the law. Leavitt (The Body of Jonah Boyd) writes that the unfailingly logical Turing was so literal minded, he "neither glorified nor anthologized" his homosexuality. Educated at King's College, Cambridge, and Princeton, Turing produced the landmark paper "On Computable Numbers" in 1937, where he proposed the radical idea that machines would and could "think" for themselves. Despite his Enigma code–breaking prowess during the war, which gave the Allies a crucial advantage, Turing was arrested in 1952 and charged with committing acts of gross indecency with another man. With lyrical prose and great compassion, Leavitt has produced a simple book about a complex man involved in an almost unfathomable task that is accessible to any reader. Illus. (Nov. 28)
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From Booklist

Initiated by the definitive biography Alan Turing, by Andrew Hodges (1983), the revival of the reputation of the computer theorist continues with this engaging treatment. Leavitt's signal accomplishment is a comprehensible explanation of the mathematical abstractions in Turing's seminal papers, "On Computable Numbers" (1936) and "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" (1950), from which derive the popular shorthand of the "Turing machine" and the "Turing test." On the biography side, Leavitt reveals a perceptive understanding of Turing's personality, one more sophisticated than the common view of Turing as a martyr to homophobia. Arrested for an infraction of a law against homosexuality, Turing committed suicide at age 42 in 1954. Its peculiar manner--Turing ate a cyanide-laced apple--induces Leavitt to integrate Turing's obsessions with the film Snow White, with an apparently unrequited love interest who died in Turing's teens, and with ESP into an unconventional speculation. Turing is the model of the solitary, absentminded genius. His tragedy and his intellectual significance, including his role in breaking German ciphers in World War II, come clear in Leavitt's hands. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.4 out of 5 stars  31 reviews
48 of 55 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I wish other reviewers would take a step back April 16 2006
By Nicholas L. Piasecki - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As a dual computer science and English major, I find it refreshing when I stumble upon a computer science book that surveys the field from a more literary and philosophical perspective. (Galloway's "Protocol" is another example of such a work that I've encountered recently.)

While Leavitt's analogies are thin at times (and the reason I give the book only 4 stars), the fact remains that if you are concerned about Turing the scientist, Turing the mathematician, or Turing the codebreaker, you have many books to choose from; this book deals with Turing in a uniquely different perspective.

While Turing's homosexuality is central to Leavitt's work, he still discusses Turing's various scientific achievements, although not with a level of detail that many reviewers seem to be expecting. To those reviewers, I would say that a biography of Thomas Edison does not necessarily require a detailed account of the physical properties of the various filaments that he attempted to use in the light bulb. To do so would make the book less accessible to outside readers and would miss the point.

What I find fascinating is how Leavitt manages to organize this book in a novel-like fashion such that the pace gradually quickens as we near Turing's (apparent) suicide. This is a work about the genius and tragedy that was Turing the man (and not merely "Turing the homosexual" as another reviewer so depressingly categorizes). To reduce him to just a summary of his accomplishments, as many other references on him do, is undoubtedly an injustice.

To criticize this book for favoring an analysis of Turing the man over an analysis of Turing the mathematician's accomplishments is to not have read the synopsis printed on the dust jacket.
41 of 49 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars read "Alan Turing: The Enigma" by Andrew Hodges instead June 14 2006
By Eyesk - Published on
If your interest is in Alan Turing, and you are only just becoming familiar with him, you would probably be better served reading what many regard as not only an excellent biography of Alan Turing, but an excellent piece of biographical writing in and of itself, Andrews Hodges' ALAN TURING: THE ENIGMA. The current copy on the American Amazon site is an expanded and pricey edition, so you may want to go to the the United Kingdom Amazon site to get the slimmer, earlier edition, which not only costs less, but was also the basis for the award-winning play BREAKING THE CODE. After you've read Hodges' work, and wish to read more about Turing and his work and theories from other perspectives, then you may want to avail yourself on some of these other texts.
48 of 60 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Elegant, yet highly mathematical, look at the life of Alan Turing Dec 12 2005
By S. Arnold - Published on
Leavitt freely admits that there is abundant documentation on the life and work of Alan Turing. I've read several of these works, and I can tell you this one is nothing like the rest. Leavitt has mastered the art of transforming Alan's complicated work into a form that truly captivates you. I had expected more on Turing's personal life, but Leavitt really concentrates his energy on revealing the inner workings of Turing through his professional and academic work. He offers perspectives that many others have totally missed. Some might challenge some of Leavitt's "reading between the lines," but most will enjoy the fresh view.
80 of 108 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not what I was hoping for from a series called great discoveries... Jan. 13 2006
By twm - Published on
I'm doing something I haven't done before -- writing a review before finishing the book. I just couldn't get through it. I thought this might be useful info in and of itself.

My wife got this for me as a present because I guess she'd heard me speak glowingly of Turing while I was in graduate school. She got me the book on Cantor, et al, (same publisher) by DF Wallace awhile back and knew I liked that book, which I did, despite studying Cantor's ideas formally at the graduate level -- that book has some interesting tidbits on his life and tied it all together with his discoveries quite nicely.

I'd like to contrast this book with that one, briefly.

I felt DFW was competent, albeit inelegant at times, in his descriptions of Cantor's theorems. And, maybe more important, I got the sense that DFW loved the math and came to love the man (Cantor) through it; that, although a novelist, he was besotted with Cantor's mind and might have, had things gone a bit differently in his life, ended up a mathematician or a computer scientist instead of a writer. His enthusiasm was fun, even if it was somewhat untrained.

This book, however, is quite different. The author says he avoided math in high school and college, never really liked it, etc, etc, etc, and you know what? It shows. Where DFW used mathematical analogies, Leavitt uses literary references. Where DFW showed us Cantor through the lens of mathematics, Leavitt shows us Turing through the lens of homosexuality. DFW shows us how math shaped the man, Leavitt tries to convince us Turing's sexuality shaped his mathematics.

Often, the thesis becomes stretched and interpretation leads to, in my mind, over-interpretation - he mentions the rescinding of England's "acts of indecency" a few times, which is particularly curious given that happened in 1967 -- 13 years after Turing's tragic death.

I guess, in short, whereas I fully believe DFW would have researched and written about any person who generated Cantor's ideas (i.e., it didn't need to be Cantor per se), I got the sense Leavitt could have written about any scientist who was persecuted for being gay -- that person happened to be Turing.

Is this a bad thing? No -- it's probably quite interesting for someone who generally reads in the gay & lesbian studies genre to learn about this man's mathematical ideas.

It just wasn't interesting for this person, who generally reads mathematics books and wanted to learn a bit more about Turing the mathematician (i.e., not Turing the homosexual, although of course that would be part of any biography - just not necessarily its reason for being).
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Aman both of his time and ahead of his time Jan. 30 2007
By Mr P R Morgan - Published on
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.


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