85 of 93 people found the following review helpful
on April 16, 2006
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.
63 of 72 people found the following review helpful
on June 14, 2006
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.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on August 24, 2010
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.
51 of 63 people found the following review helpful
on December 12, 2005
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.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on January 30, 2007
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.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 20, 2013
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.
88 of 120 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2006
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).
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on November 11, 2010
The Man Who Knew too much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the
Computer -- By David Leavitt
I was preparing an Amazon List called: "Great Minds; Troubled Lives" when I came across this biography of Alan Turing. There seem to have been a number scientists and thinkers who were ahead of their time; made significant contributions, and then were forgotten until they were "rediscovered" years later. Nikola Tesla, whose archrival Thomas Edison beat him out for the popular belief that he (Edison) was solely responsible for electrical production was one of them. James Clerk Maxwell, the Scottish Enlightenment scientist who solved the riddle of Saturn's rings and formulated "Maxwell's Equations" to explain electromagnetism, was another. Yet another is Norbert Wiener, the discoverer of Cybernetics who was ostracized for his political beliefs during the Cold War, and whose contributions to the philosophy of Information theory were largely overlooked. It seems that good public relations and self-promotion assure both popular celebrity and, in academic circles, tenure and prominence.
Turing was a gifted mathematician, theorist, and developer of the Turing Machine, a prototype of the modern computer. He was also a vital part of the group of brilliant scientists at Bletchley Park in England who unraveled the seemingly unbreakable German "Enigma" machine used in code- making.
He was also a homosexual, during a period when "outing" was not popular and same-sex sexual intimacy was still criminalized. Unlike other prominent gay men of the era, he wasn't content to stay in the closet.
E.M. Forster wrote his semi-autobiographical "Maurice", about a prohibited love between a member of the Landed Gentry and a common laborer, with the express provision that it not be published until after his death. Homosexuality was the Pink Elephant in the room; it was widely practiced in the upper crust of society and just as widely winked at. (Like Dorothy Parker's famous line, "If all the girls at Vasser were laid end to end,,I wouldn't be a bit surprised.") But it also crossed social and class lines, which was perhaps more egregious than the act itself. Turing was charged with having sex with a much younger, much less educated man, in what sounded like a case of extortion or else, exposure to public ruin.
Faced with the certain loss of his security clearance, Turing killed himself.
Here is where I may diverge from other other reviewers: the author, David Leavitt, is son openly gay writer and professor. I read his first book, "The Lost Language of Cranes," years ago, and was very impressed. Does Leavitt's own sexuality disqualify him somehow from writing a biography of another gay man? Of course not. It may in fact, help readers who are too young to remember when gay bars were routinely raided by police, homosexuals were subject to extortion and blackmail, and TV shows like "Queer as Folk" and "Sklns" would have been unthinkable.
Leavitt does a creditable job in explaining, or at least outlining the principles of the Turing Machine, which was less a piece of machinery than a set of concepts. Leavitt writes
"The extent of his contribution to the war effort - of which he never soke during his lifetime...should not be underestimated, and though it would probably be an exaggeration to say that without Turing the Allies wouold not have won the war, it is reasonable that without him it would have taken them several more years to do it. At the same time, had the British authorities known that Turing was homosexual, they might have refused to let him anywhere near Bletchley, in witch case, as he friend Jack Good observed, "We might have lost the war."
Two other books on the subject are worthy of mention:
"Alan Turing; The Enigma" by Allan Hodges and "A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines," a fictional account by Janne Levin, which treats both Turing and Kurt Godel another brilliant, and troubled, scientist.
I give Leavitt's book four stars.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on June 11, 2007
All students studying computer science are introduced to Alan Turing at one time or another. For most, this introduction takes the form of Turing as the inventor of the Turing Machine, a machine unbounded by time and memory that can solve any problem. Once the students perform some perfunctory exercises involving the use of a Turing machine to construct say, the solution to the dining philosophers problem, they promptly forget about Turing and his machine. Which is so sad. Turing can be rightly considered the father of the modern computer where data and memory are mapped to the same address space. This invention is typically attributed to John von Neumann, but the author of the book makes a point that behind von Neumann's contribution was Turing's hand. Turing went on, in his brief life spanning only 42 years, to work on cryptography (credited with decoding the German Enigma machines in World War II, albeit using the groundwork laid down by a Polish cryptographer, Martin Rejewski; see Simon Singh's Code Book reviewed in 2006), artificial intelligence (the Turing Test), and mathematics. The state saw to it that his genius would be, unfortunately, eclipsed by his sexuality. In 1952, Turing was convicted of "acts of gross indecency" after admitting sexual relations with a man. He was forced to undergo hormone therapy in the vain hope of "curing" him. Instead, what these pogroms did was to rob the scientific world of one of the greatest researchers of all times. Turing elected to end his life by biting into an apple laced with cyanide. It was apropos; his favorite fairy tale was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 2, 2012
The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer
by David Leavitt
Weidenfeld & Nicolson pp320
For those who know even a slither of Turing will tell you of his almost childishness typical of geeky genius, who adored Disney's films, and often recited the spell that the Wicked Queen chants over the poisoned apple she offers to the simpering heroine. Why is this important?
In 1954, Turning took his own life - for he was in despair after his arrest for 'gross indecency' with a rent boy, for which his punishment had been chemical castration.
A bitten apple was found beside his bed; before chomping, he had dipped it in a cyanide solution. Novelist David Leavitt, a specialist in the existential intricacy of gay relationships, concludes this short biography by remarking that no prince ever came to kiss Turing awake.
Before looking at Leavitt's novel, I should say I first read his "The Body of Jonah Boyd." It is a novel within a novel, ending with a self-referential twist that made me wonder whether Leavitt had been inspired by Turing's mind boggling proof about undecidability in which a computer tries to swallow its own tail - bootstrapping.
So armed with this I went on to read "The Man Who Knew Too Much". Leavitt, the American gay novelist, has no mathematical background, though he makes considerable efforts to cover Turing's work. He doesn't use recently released "code breaking" documents and his treatment of Turing's Enigma work is particularly thin. His focus, however, lies in applying his interpretation of sexual politics to Turing's texts against the background of the times - valuable nevertheless.
I must say though the circumstances surrounding Turing's demise are murky enough that some people doubt he really killed himself. He had been using potassium cyanide in gold-plating experiments. The poisoning was conceivably accidental. Leavitt entertains, though not so seriously, another possibility: "that the suicide was staged," and he had become, like the Hitchcock character, "a man who knew too much."
Leavitt discusses Turing's writing on artificial intelligence; his main point being that Turing asserts the equality of machines and minds as a sort of code for the demand for homosexual equality. But Turing's wit is secondary to his scientific thesis about the computer and the brain, which comes from putting his theory of computability into the traditional problem of mind and matter: this is the argument that makes Turing's work so relevant today.
In his book Leavitt includes Turing's self-motivated pre-war work on ciphers, but doesn't suggest that Turing took on the vital naval Enigma problem off his own bat, when prevailing wisdom considered it unsolvable. Leavitt depicts Turing's work as theoretical rather than hugely practical.
This is a fascinating story of a fascinating man told in a way that is entertaining and beautiful.