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A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines Hardcover – August 22, 2006

3.7 out of 5 stars 68 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The lives of Kurt Gödel (1906" 1978) and Alan Turing (1912" 1954) never crossed physically, but did intellectually: Gödel's incompleteness theorem implies a sort of Platonism, and Turing's mechanical decision theory implies, conversely, hard-nosed materialism. Levin, a mathematician, juxtaposes both lives in her debut novel. She begins with Gödel as a young man in Vienna, his incompleteness theorem destroying the line of inquiry (arguably spearheaded by Wittgenstein, who cameos)that argued math was complete in itself; his courtship with a nightclub dancer, Adele; his misunderstanding of the Nazi takeover of Austria. Alan Turing's not very charmed life is skewed not only by what looks like autism but by being hounded for his homosexuality in Britain"after breaking the German Enigma code during WWII. Turing is an innocent in many ways, while Gödel, a greater thinker, is a monster of selfishness; both, however, have a passion for the invisible that is hard to dramatize. Gödel becomes a paranoid old man, living with Adele (who comes alive through Levin's shrewd novelistic guesswork) in solitude in Princeton, and eventually starving himself to death. Levin is sympathetic to all concerned, but doesn't quite make a larger point, dramatic or otherwise. (Aug. 25)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


“An absolutely wonderful book. Godel and Turning tried to defy time, and failed, so the only way to bring them back is through the imagination. It requires a very wise and special imagination, with a powerful and quirky mind of her own, to give a plausible portrait of such geniuses. Janna Levin is a gifted stylist and with this compelling book, she has transcended the category of scientists who write books to become simply one of our most interesting contemporary writers.”
–Lee Smolin, author of The Life of The Cosmos and Three Roads to Quantum Gravity

“I love the contrast of Turing's mechanized view of the world with Godel's more openended ‘incompleteness.’ A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines is a wonderfully imagined book.”
–Alan Lightman, author of Einstein's Dreams

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines is a wonderfully original book. Janna Levin's compelling narrative artfully straddles the realms of fiction and non-fiction, allowing us to viscerally experience the tortured lives of two towering intellects–Godel and Turing–while learning how each, in his own way, left a profound imprint on human thought.”
–Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; F First Edition edition (August 22, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400040302
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400040308
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,041,165 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By William Melendez on March 15, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Although Levin is an amazing physicist, her first foray into the world of literary fiction is, on first read, not so amazing. That said, the subject matter of her novel is more than fascinating and so, the fact that her storytelling and craftsmanship as a writer is more than lacking at the beginning of the book, the story sells itself as a tour de force in its fictionalization of the lives of two geniuses who struggle with a deep awkwardness with life.
At the beginning of the book the prose is almost a torture to read: some times overwrought,
'While they continue to play an anomalously quiet game, the pit of dread is jostled and falls deep into the fertile gastrointestinal soil where it begins its life cycle. Will it fester as an ulcer, or blossom into rancid abnormal cells? That depends on how each chooses to tend that messy garden';
and at other times over the top,
'The iron frame of Kurt's bed was a brutal conductor of the chill singeing his hand so sharply as he hoisted himself awake this morning that it might as well have left a burn, and the cloud of condensation that escaped from his damp mouth could have been smoke'.
The narration changes from past tense to present tense in the same paragraph! While her prose changes drastically for the better midway through the book, this irritating tendency to write a single scene as happening in the past as well as in the present continues unabated.
But, amazingly, halfway into the book it seems as if another Levin is writing the book. A Levin who is confident in her craft and skilled in turning a single moment of the story into a soaring monument of poetry. What happened! Whatever happened it happened for the better. Levin takes command of her themes and infuses them into poetic states throughout the character's events.
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Format: Hardcover
Janna Levin has created a strange and beautiful world in this relatively short, very readable, compelling book. She pushes the line between fiction and nonfiction. The book sticks close to the biographical facts of two historical figures, towering intellects of the last century. Their stories are told by someone you might at first assume is the author. Only, this narrator is unreliable, distorting their stories not with untruths exactly but with hyper-real prose. The imagery is too vivid and eventually slightly surreal to be true. Eventually the narrator, a self-professed liar, becomes unreal too and you realize you don't even know who the narrator is. Maybe the narrator is you. Maybe it is all in your mind. At first I didn't get what she was doing with the narrator but then it hit me. She's saying it's all in our minds! This book makes you think about truth, the pursuit of truth, beauty and weakness.

I also found particularly compelling the descriptions of thought itself and the loneliness that can result from getting lost in your own world. I do have a science background but I shouldn't think you need a background in mathematics to appreciate the power thinking has over every aspect of our perceptions.

The subtle melding of fact and fiction is, well, subtle. Not everyone will get it. Not everyone will like it. But if you do get it, it's powerful. This book is special, a little gem.
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Format: Hardcover
Most people think of science and art as distinct, incompatible things. Janna Levin, in her first novel, brings those assumptions into question. A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines follows the lives of two prominent scientists, Kurt Godel and Alan Turing. The two were great geniuses of their times, and made scientific discoveries that changed the world: Godel proved mathematically that mathematics is limited in what we can know; Turing imagined and developed a machine to break the Nazi Enigma Code and subsequently paved the way for the invention of the computer.

But while you follow these mathematic achievements, you never get bogged down in their details. Levin does an excellent job referring to the science without derailing the narrative by attempting to explain it. The story is really about the personal struggles of these men of genius, their social ineptness, their anguish, their battles with faith and desire. The two men never met. The story alternates chapters between their two lives - Godel in Vienna in the 1930s and Turing in England from the 1930-1950s. But Turing knows of Godel's work, is affected by it, and their stories feel right being told together like they are.

Reading this book, you can imagine the pain of being socially outcast, of being misunderstood because your genius in one area renders your mind incomprehensible to other people, and your life an oddity that people pity or fear. By doing thorough research into the lives of Godel and Turing, Levin was able to base her fictionalized account on solid ground. What she imagines, with compassion and keen insight, is the anguish of their inner lives. Because of her own background in science (Levin is a professor of physics and astronomy), she understands the mathematics behind Godel's and Turing's achievements.
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Format: Paperback
In glittering prose that swirls through time and place with an almost surreal quality, Janna Levin dances along the knife edge of madness that haunted the genius of two seminal figures of 20th Century thought, Kurt Godel and Alan Turing. Levin mixes biography and fiction to recall these two men's magnificent intellectual accomplishments, Godel's mathematically renowned Incompleteness Theorem and Turing's theoretical conception of the calculation device that ultimately became known as the Turing machine. Added to this mix are appearances by two other lions of modern thought, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Oskar Morganstern.

Rather than belabor the content of these men's discoveries, however, A MADMAN DREAMS OF TURING MACHINES focuses instead on these tortured souls, geniuses both, whose lives ran in parallel with but the briefest of near-intersections. As her story alternates between her two protagonists, Levin introduces Kurt Godel as pathologically introverted, a man whose self-confidence can be shattered by the merest "tssk, tssk" from a more outspoken peer who disagrees. Godel, a man who labored in anonymity and whose name is still largely unrecognized by the general public, is presented by the author as having a weak physical constitution, thin to the point of self-starvation. His illness is only compounded by paranoia that he is being poisoned, if not by his food, then by his heating stove.

Alan Turing, subject of the theatrical production "Breaking the Code," is considered by many the father of modern computing. However, he is remembered as much for his homosexuality as for his vital role at Bletchley Park, England, in World War II, leading the British effort in cracking the Germans' Enigma code-making machine.
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