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The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer (Great Discoveries) Hardcover – January 1, 2006

ISBN-13: 978-0393052367 ISBN-10: 0393052362 Edition: First

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Product Details

  • Series: Great Discoveries
  • Hardcover: 319 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton; First edition (January 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393052362
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393052367
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 6.2 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #857,143 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

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 Scientific American

Twenty-five years ago the word "Turing" tingled with mystery for the few who knew it. Readers of Douglas Hofstadter learned that Alan Turing belonged with Gödel in exploring minds and logic and knew also of "the Turing test" for artificial intelligence. But others were aware of Turing as a British figure, a Cambridge mathematician, emerging in connection with the huge World War II operation to break the Enigma ciphers. His crucial importance in the battle of the Atlantic was still shrouded by state secrecy. In fact, it was only after this secrecy was lifted that he began to be acknowledged for another great contribution—his role in the origin of the computer. The conspicuously missing feature was the testimony of Alan Turing himself. He had died at age 41 in 1954, apparently killing himself with cyanide— and leaving a jagged hole in history. By 1980 rumor told of the prosecution and punishment that he had undergone as a homosexual in 1952. But even then, such a story could no longer serve as a simple explanation of suicide. Turing’s friends had known him as unashamed and contemptuous of convention. A different suspicion struck those who knew the dark side of the 1950s. The victorious Allies must have been appalled by this revelation of the man who knew their secrets: How could Turing’s private desires be reconciled with the public demands of state security? But on this question, total silence reigned. Since then, the situation has completely changed. A number of events have made Turing’s life better known to the public than that of probably any other mathematician. A notable actor, Derek Jacobi, has played Turing’s drama to millions of viewers in Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 play Breaking the Code. Little is secret from Google, and computer science students may find themselves expected to assess his life and death. Massive U.S. government releases in the 1990s have made World War II code breaking the subject of detailed scholarship, and conferences and books celebrate Turing’s continuing influence. Complexity theory and quantum computing build on his analysis of computation, and since the 1980s Roger Penrose has given new life to Turing’s deepest questions. Above all, Turing’s reputation is now solidly underpinned by the vindication of his vision. Although John von Neumann led by a few months in creating a computer plan, it was Turing who explained in 1946 how "every known process" could be turned into computer software. Turing had seen this prospect in the simple but revolutionary principle of his Universal Turing Machine, laid out in a paper in 1936, and had thus created an amazing link between the purest mathematics and the most productive industrial applications. But there are always more secrets to unravel and always room for yet another introduction. A series of "great discoveries," such as the current undertaking from W. W. Norton, cannot ignore Turing, and it is interesting to see the story of his contributions attempted by an American novelist, David Leavitt. The story is not simply a question of dates and facts. To use one of Turing’s own images, it is like the skin of an onion. It calls for a writer who can unpeel it with care and who is unafraid of tears. Intensely private, yet relishing popular writing and broadcasts, fiercely proud and yet absurdly self-effacing, Turing led a strange life intertwined with characteristically odd British puzzles of class and lifestyle. A central paradox is that he asserted the "heretical theory" that the human mind could be rivaled by a computer, whereas his own personality so little resembled the output of a machine. It was willful, individualistic, unpredictable. His struggle to incorporate initiative and creativity in his artificial-intelligence theory is therefore a personal drama. This is a puzzle that goes to the heart of science and yet is also fine material for a novelist of insight. Leavitt’s focus is elsewhere, however. It is on Turing as the gay outsider, driven to his death. No opportunity is lost to highlight this subtext. When Turing quips about the principle of "fair play for machines," Leavitt sees a plea for homosexual equality. It is quite right to convey his profound alienation and to bring out the consistency of his English liberalism. It is valuable to show human diversity lying at the center of scientific inquiry. But Leavitt’s laborious decoding understates the constant dialogue between subjective individual vision and the collective work of mathematics and science, with its ideal of objectivity, to which Turing gave his life. Scientific content is not neglected; Leavitt’s discussion of Turing’s 1936 paper has perhaps excessive technical detail. But the vision is partial: he fails to give any discussion of what Turing’s proof implies for the question of artificial intelligence. A general problem is that, being the prisoner of secondary sources, the author finds himself the outsider. He quotes from another writer on statistical methods in 19th-century code breaking but omits the primary fact that Turing’s central scientific contribution at Bletchley Park, the British wartime cryptanalytic center, was his statistical theory of weighing evidence. The book’s subtitle is "Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer," but on the critical question of Turing’s relationship with von Neumann it must rely on quoting Martin Davis’s Engines of Logic. This is no groundbreaking book, nor does it do much hoeing or weeding. It is a survey of a field long cultivated by other hands, devoid of new witnesses. The title, also secondhand, suggests new light on his death, but there are no new facts. Leavitt claims a "sad descent into grief and madness" induced by the prosecution—he ignores the heap of manuscripts from Turing’s last prolific year of research and misrepresents his renewed interest in physics as ravings. No new revelation about Turing’s code breaking is offered. Leavitt describes his visit to Bletchley Park—now a museum—but only as a tourist, to report the embarrassment of a tour guide in describing Turing’s fate. In this book, Leavitt offers his own tour. It is one that many will find congenial and that will at least introduce new readers to the still tingling enigma of Alan Turing.

Andrew Hodges, a mathematician at the University of Oxford, is author of Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983).


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Customer Reviews

The book is a great read, well worth the effort.
Mark H. Harris
His "Turing Machine" theory is an underpinning for modern computing, but a difficult topic that does not exactly jump off the pages here.
Jack Vaughan
The quotes and discussion again left me with the sense of individual threads left loose, not woven together.
Pat McGee

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

52 of 59 people found the following review helpful By Nicholas L. Piasecki on April 16, 2006
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.
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44 of 52 people found the following review helpful By Eyesk on June 14, 2006
Format: Hardcover
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.
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48 of 60 people found the following review helpful By S. Arnold on December 12, 2005
Format: Hardcover
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.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Mr P R Morgan on January 30, 2007
Format: Paperback
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).
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83 of 112 people found the following review helpful By twm on January 13, 2006
Format: Hardcover
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.
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