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A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines Paperback – September 18, 2007
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“Intelligent . . . compelling. . . . As Levin alternates between the lives of Turing and G?del, she delivers a convincing, palpably human portrait of solitary genius.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer“A simple work of genius.”—Toronto Globe & Mail“Her characters and their century come brilliantly . . . alive.” —The Los Angeles Times Book Review“Like a lyrical mash-up, Levin interweaves the personal narrative style of her first book with taut prose evocative of Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams.” —Seed Magazine
About the Author
Born in Texas and raised in Chicago, Janna Levin is currently a professor of mathematics and physics at Barnard and Columbia universities. She holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has been Scientist-in-Residence at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at the University of Oxford and an Advanced Fellow in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University. Levin is the author of How the Universe Got Its Spots, published in 2003 by Anchor.
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One thing I love about Levin's style is how accessible she makes complicated ideas. She has a real gift for this. Although the primary subjects are mathematicians, the book presents their big ideas without equations or technical details. You will understand the incompleteness theorem without needing to know symbolic logic, and the explanation moves the story.
A few style choices irked me. For example, the repeated use of the German word "Strasse" when "street" would have been just fine. These are petty criticisms of an excellent book, but I found them annoying enough to deduct 1/2 star.
This is the historically-informed story of two 20th century intellectual giants, Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel. Other real life figures make supporting appearances such as Wittgenstein and Otto Neurath. There are also very brief and well-placed metafictional entries and minute allusions that bring the author into the fold in a narrator-as-character manner, as can be seen in the very (non-)beginning of the book:
"There is no beginning. I've tried to invent one but it was a lie and I don't want to be a liar. This story will end where it began, in the middle. A triangle or a circle. A closed loop with three points.
At one apex is a paranoid lunatic, at another is a lonesome outcast: Kurt Gödel, the greatest logician of many centuries; and Alan Turing, the brilliant code breaker and mathematician. Their genius is a testament to our worth, an antidote to insignificance; and their bounteous flaws are luckless but seemingly natural complements, as though greatness can be doled out only with an equal measure of weakness."
The connection between mental illness and artistic and intellectual greatness is a long established cliché by this point and is probably far too often overstated via confirmation bias. There's a fantastic documentary called Dangerous Knowledge which focuses on four mathematicians and/or scientists who all grappled with hugely complex and difficult issues like the nature of the deepest structures of reality, infinity, human consciousness, free will v. determinism, etc, and all ended up killing themselves. Turing and Gödel are two of the four. There's an implication that it was their theories and obsessive intellectual aspirations that drove them to commit suicide, which I think is a rather flawed notion considering the facts and other plausible explanations. However, it does make for compelling narrative to peer into the lives of tortured geniuses consumed by their own big brains or whatever, and is an excellent sounding board for thinking about the pursuit of knowledge and its various costs and benefits. In any case, these are fascinating stories, and Turing's in particular I find the most captivating and tragic.
Alan Turing's influence is felt hugely in the realm of computer science, cryptology, Artificial Intelligence and mathematical logic more generally. He's often credited as one of the single most important influences on the development of the modern computer--without Turing we may not be having this exchange of information right now. He also played a hugely instrumental role in cracking the German Naval Enigma Code in WWII with his tireless cryptology work and innovations in the field which allowed for a far more rapid decoding of the German transmissions that were quite literally matters of life or death. After the war he was arrested for admitting to having homosexual relationships to the police after he reported being burgled by a casual fling--arrested and prosecuted by the very same government he'd served and protected. Instead of going to prison he was chemically castrated. The regimen of huge doses of estrogen caused him to gain weight and grow breasts, fall into a chemical depression, and ultimately end his life by eating a cyanide-glazed apple, mimicking one of his favorite films, Snow White. Turing was persecuted to death. The British government has the blood of a genius (who saved them from further Axis-led destruction) on their hands. Only as recently as 2009 has the British government issued an official apology for this incident that occurred in 1952 (however the same government has rejected the proposal to posthumously pardon Turing of his "crimes"). It took the Roman Catholic Church 359 years to finally officially apologize for persecuting Galileo for positing that the Earth revolves around the sun, so perhaps this is the sign of a kind of progress, but it still all feels far too little, far too late.
Kurt Gödel was a mathematician and logician (the distinction between the two starts to break down at a certain point) who famously constructed his Incompleteness Theorems, which I still have trouble explaining, because I'm a dummy when it comes to mathematics and formal logic (Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem For Dummies). I am truly ignorant about mathematical matters, but I can appreciate from my perch of acknowledged ignorance the allure of "the sanctity and purity of mathematics, the profound truth so completely immune to human stains." Gödel was also an absolute loon. He held a deep paranoid fear of being poisoned and as such rarely ate anything and only enough to keep his skeletal frame alive, and had elaborate rituals involving his wife's cooking. He was also a member of the famed Vienna Circle, a group of intellectuals who met weekly to discuss the tenets of their new unifying idealistic philosophy of Logical Positivism. Gödel, along with Wittgenstein, each in their own ways, aided in dismantling this group with their unorthodox ideas. There are great sections in this book where Gödel's proposed notions of "Incompleteness" cause a great uproar amongst those seeking complete unifying theories to knit all of reality together. Gödel lived much longer than Turing, but ultimately died by starving himself to death both out of his paranoid notions of being poisoned and for other sad and errant reasons: there's a passage in the book where Gödel delusionally claims that his refusal to eat is a proof of his free will, something he desperately wanted to believe in, along with the existence of an afterlife.
Turing and Gödel never met, but they were certainly aware of each other's work and so the only way they collide in the book is in mentioning one another's ideas.
Janna Levin is a physicist with a concentration in philosophy (her primary professional focus is cosmology but she had formal focus on philosophy as well, and I think it shows) yet on the stylistic level her writing is fantastic and surely shames huge numbers of authors who've workshopped their way through MFAs and maybe even published for years and years, while narrowly focused on literary fiction and nothing else. Janna Levin churns out steadily captivating prose that soars richly and exultantly without succumbing to a plummeted decadence; regularly supplanting ho-hum descriptions with a strikingly vivid lyricism through the conjuring of unusual imago-sensory crossbreeds that dance across the neural pathways with pleasantly assured aplomb.
The book is thoroughly researched as the notes provided at the back of the book further prove. It's intellectually dexterous in its portrayals of these brilliant and flawed figures. The subjects (and the sort of human beings most tightly latched upon them) that are classically conceived of as cold and cerebral and arrogantly cocksure are sensitively imbued with the squirming life and heat of fallibility, frailty, confusion, and the portrayal of the true scientific spirit, where truth is provisional, and self-doubt and self-interrogation are constant companions.
While this is a book of heady ideas, it's also a humanizing ode. The sections on Turing especially tugged the heartstrings. He was an odd but deeply sympathetic person. There are gripping descriptions of London being bombed by the German Luftwaffe, of Alan's loneliness and tragic loss of his one true love as a schoolboy, and multiple gorgeous sections about the interconnectivity of things that just need to be read to be felt.
Both Turing and Gödel chased after the Truth with great fervor accompanied by great doubt. This classic yearning for the Truth of All Truths is maybe something many can easily set aside as not worth wasting time over when there is a more pressing desire for the Pursuit of Happiness on offer. I myself have often done this and will continue to do it. Hitting a wall where I no longer hunger for deep abstract truths about the nature of consciousness or reality or death, etc. But the desire never fully cools either. Also, even if one doesn't care at all about such cliché or high-minded foolishness, everyone knows what it's like to yearn strongly for something Ideal, be it Romantic Love or the Perfect Career or the Perfect Artistic Creation and so on. As Olga Neurath says to Gödel about her and her husband finally accepting his Incompleteness Theorem:
"Your incompleteness theorem was hard for him to accept. It was hard for all of us, for every mathematician alive. But then Moritz always knew that it did not matter what he believed. What matters is the truth. And somehow you found it hidden where none of us could see. We all came to realize that mathematics is still flawless--no paradoxes, contradictions--just some truths that cannot be proven. Not so bad. We can live with that. He could live with that. [...] I myself worried from the start. Kurt, you worried us. It was hard for us for a time, to be sure. If not even arithmetic is complete, then what could we hope for from out philosophies, from our sciences, from the very things that were to be our salvation? The buoys that we clung--perhaps, I would admit now, with too much desperation--were taken away. [...] And here we are again with our hopes being crushed. I used to believe that when I was older I would come to some kind of conclusion, some calming resolution, and then the restlessness would end. I would know something definitive and questions would fade. But that will never happen. [...] We wanted to construct complete worldviews, complete and consistent theories and philosophies, perfect solutions where everything could find its place. But we cannot. The girls I hear playing in the park when I walk to the institute, our neighbor the old woman who will die soon, our own circle, we all prize a resolution, a gratifying ending, completeness and unity, but we are surrounded by incompleteness.
So I think that reading about the pursuit of Truth can still be moving and redemptive and nourishing for those who do not currently or never have really put much value on it. And then the journey becomes more valuable than the destination, as the ol' cliché reminds us.
Not quite sure what the role or value of the first person narrater is in the several places she shows up. I'd have to read those parts again, like not quite getting a scene in a movie and having to play it back.
Great read. I don't think this kind of writing roots as deeply in most physicists as it does in Levin. I would also recommend Rebecca Goldstein's biography of Kurt Godel.
mathematicians. The structure of the novel is one that would likely appeal to the type of mind that
would be interested in math or science. I found it fascinating and a good read.
Most recent customer reviews
The writing shows deep understanding, originality, and wit. Wow.Read more