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Man Who Knew Too Much Hardcover – Nov 29 2005

3.0 out of 5 stars 1 customer review

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: W W Norton (Nov. 29 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393052362
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393052367
  • Product Dimensions: 20.6 x 15.7 x 2.8 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 431 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars 1 customer review
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #590,888 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Having read and greatly admired David Leavitt's historically-based novel, "The Indian Clerk," which tells the story of the Inidan mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, I was looking forward to "The Man Who Knew Too Much," thinking (mistakenly, as it turned out) that he would do for Turing what he had done for Ramanujan. But whereas in the case of Ramanujan the author was able to write a story of profound human interest at the same time as he wove mathematical lore throughout the text, the exact opposite is true in the case of TMWKTM; that is, the scientific/mathematical details relating to computering completely overwhelm the human aspects of the story. To state the same more simply, I picked up TMWKTM hoping to learn about the man, Alan Turing, and yes, a bit too about computering, and what I got was a manual on how to build a computer, a story of x's and o's, which I found way too detailed for my taste and level of scientific/mathematical sophistication. In the end, I was left wondering whether the tile, TMWKTM, might not apply to the author rather than s subject.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.2 out of 5 stars 46 reviews
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Good transaction. June 2 2014
By XXXX - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Boring book. No what I was expecting, considering the author. No recommended for other than a very specific group of people, the one interested in computer history.
96 of 104 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 Nick - 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.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars good explanations for the layperson Aug. 24 2010
By arpard fazakas - Published on
Format: Paperback
This is a good review of the life and intellectual accomplishments of Alan Turing, one of the seminal figures of 20th century mathematics. What I liked about this book was the author's willingness to try to explain Turing's major mathematical and scientific discoveries in layman's terms without resorting to either jargon or handwaving. The explanation of the way Turing used idealized computing machines to prove the Indeterminacy Theorem is superb. The material on the cracking of the Enigma code is also very good. There is also great sympathy for the difficulties Turing faced as a homosexual in a homophobic era. Some of the speculation regarding the influence of Turing's sexual orientation on his work I found a bit farfetched, but interesting nonetheless. This is a very worthwhile read.
6 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sad ending to a great genius April 15 2006
By Evalyn F. Segal - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book gives a clear and accessible account of the life and the mathematical achievements of Alan Turing and his contributions to the development of cryptanalysis and the modern computer. Turing apparently committed suicide in the early 1950's because the British authorities were hounding him about his homosexuality. He was a man ahead of his time in one too many ways!
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars mistreated genius July 20 2013
By Mr. D. P. Jay - Published on
Format: Paperback
I knew someone who worked in Bletchley Park during World War II, though he steadfastly refused to talk about it. He got a first class degree in mathematics in Cambridge and there was no way that they were going to waste his brain in the forces.

There are other accounts of Turing's life, for example the 1983 biography after secret documents were released did they not give him his due. They ignore his sexuality or see it as a tragic blot on his career
Turing was a literalist - what we know label as Aspergers Syndrome. His ID card was left unsigned as he hadn't been told to write on it. He couldn't read between the lines.

The world owes much, probably its very survival, to him and to other `mad' men. Godel was convinced that someone was tying to poison him as in Snow White. Blackboard erasing took an extra ten minutes of silence waiting for it `to dry'.

Wittgenstein's inspiriting, off-the-cuff lectures demanded a regular attendance commitment and you weren't to treat common sense like an umbrella left outside.

Turing was absent-minded, naïve, oblivious to the forces that threatened him. Was his suicide like Snow White - or an experiment gone wrong? Homosexuality and belief in computer intelligence were both seen as threats to religion. He saw nothing wrong with his homosexuality. He was an outsider so he saw things that others didn't but also missed things e.g. a rival thesis published before his. As a child he invented words e.g. quockling = seagulls fighting over food, greasicle = candle guttering. He knew underlying principles, not just how to do sums. Watching school sport, he was thinking intellectually on the sidelines. His body and brain were like a machine according to a science book. At school, his form master complained about his scruffy work. A doctor had recommended the study of mathematics as a cure for homosexuality. He went up to Kings Cambridge, a liberal college. He believed that limits are contrary to the nature of maths. Bletchley's secrecy made a double life easy.
German laziness made un-encryption easier. He wore a gas mask on his bike, counted revolutions of wheels, his trousers tied with string with pyjamas underneath them. He gave the impression that he didn't notice women but was probably afraid of them.

Philosophical issues are mused upon: freewill and determinism, spirit and body, Is God to blame for how we learn, any more than a teacher? Turing suggests that if God were smarter he would have designed our brains better.

The homophobia of the period is well portrayed: security risk and blackmail, chemical castration and weight gain.

So it the politics: German maths reduced chaos to order, anti-war sentiment, he sympathised with Prince Edward against the archbishop - cf. homosexuality in public schools not talked about. Maths is not neutral - it was used by Germany to encrypt and by US to make atomic bomb.

The history is accurate - it gives Islam its due re- maths discoveries; biscuits were rationed to stop students `making a meal of them'.

All in all, a very worthwhile book. One dissenting voice in our group disliked the book because of pages and pages of mathematical formulae. He said that it `spoiled the flow of the book'; I advised him simply to skim through to the next bit of normal prose but he was unable to do that. He has to read a book straight through. Perhaps he, too, had Aspergers or was never taught how to skim read.