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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 11 January 2015

"Alan Turing: the Enigma" by Andrew Hodges

This is a very thorough, indeed exhaustive, biography of Alan Turing and his ideas. It is the book that has been filmed as the Imitation Game

Turing (most people apart from 'Alan' and his closest associates are referred to either by their surnames or by their initials and surnames like a cricket card) was not a particularly distinguished school boy who had a particular love for Maths but took two goes to get a scholarship to Cambridge. He seemed to go from zero to infinity as an undergraduate and before his doctorate published his ground breaking work on the Universal Turing Machine. Then he was recruited to code breaking and solved the secrets of the naval Enigma machine so saving Britain's convoyed food supplies (and many thousands of sailors) during the Battle of the Atlantic. But after the war he failed to have much of an impact on the birth of the primitive computers despite working at the NPL (where he met my father) on the ACE and at Manchester University. He wrote a truly ground-breaking paper on morphology but this was mostly unrecognised at the time. Then he was arrested and convicted of homosexuality and forced to undergo hormone therapy as an alternative to prison. Some time after that ended he died from cyanide poisoning.

This is a difficult biography to write. Turning's work was in the hardest bits of mathematics and logic and I found the explanations hard to understand. (And I think I might have a small edge of a general reader, having taught Physics for 33 years.) There is much that is mysterious. His wartime work was under conditions of the strictest secrecy but so was his sex life (being criminal at that time) and so was his death (was it suicide? if so, why? - he left no note - or was it an an accident? or was he, as the conspiracy theorists suggest, murdered by the security services who in the height of the Cold War were frightened that this gay man might spill wartime secrets?). Hodges has done well to tell us as much as he has.

But there was an awful lot of speculation. Hodges tends to assume that Turing's scientific ideas mostly come from a text book he had as a child; there are many quotes from it. Other major influences are a book by Eddington and Back to Methuselah by George Bernard Shaw. There is a lot of talk about Red Queens and White Queens and chess problems and Alice Through the Looking Glass. But there seems little evidence for most of this.

I think this book would have benefited from a severe pruning. Although the book leaps over the last year of his life and dismisses non-suicide theories of his death, it then spends 50 pages discussing the invidious position of homosexuals in Cold War Britain. There is an awful lot of detail on the early days of computing in Britain. It could have been shorter and tighter and this would have been better.

And it really isn't for the general reader.

January 2015; 656 pages

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