Man Who Knew Too Much Hardcover – Nov 29 2005
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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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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
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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.
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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