Suffice it to say, the world would look incredibly different if not for the life of Alan Turing. This post, this medium of communication could have been incredibly different or less developed had Alan Turing not lived. Oh, and the Nazi’s could have won World War II. There is a reason author Andrew Hodges opens the book summary of his novel, Alan Turing: The Enigma with, “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the British mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954) saved the Allies from the Nazis and invented the computer and artificial intelligence— all before his suicide at age forty-one.”
Hodges’ work follows the life and times of Alan Turing, a critically important mathematician and scientist during the Second World War whose contributions are chronicled in the recent movie Imitation Game. Turing is credited as playing a major role in the cracking of the Enigma code, the code used by Nazi Germany for wartime communications, specifically U-boat communications. After these codes were broken, Turing and his fellow codebreakers, as well as British Intelligence kept the cracking of Enigma secret until long after the war. Turing was influential beyond his codebreaking years as the writer of Computable Numbers which imagined a universal machine to do computations and calculations, or as we would call it: a computer. Much of his career was also devoted to studying logic, and Turing was instrumental in laying out a foundation for artificial intelligence.
Despite these great accomplishments, Turing’s name was not resurrected in the public consciousness until recently. During his life, and tragic suicide Turing was held back by two main character traits: his anti-social tendencies and his homosexuality. Turing’s social unorthodoxy tended to cause him to be received rather strangely by peers and contributed to his not cultivating his fame and prestige during his life time. His homosexuality, a trait he did not take great pains to hide, would ultimately cause his downfall and, potentially, his suicide. Alan’s home was robbed and the robbery suspect was linked to a lover of Alan’s resulting in a conviction of “gross indecency” causing him to be chemically castrated in lieu of prison time. While it is unknown if the chemical castration and the gross indecency charge led to a depression that caused Alan Turing to take his own life, the circumstances of his life definitely contributed to the relatively low name recognition that such hero and scientific great deserves.
Hodges’ writing style is dense, full not just of the story of Alan Turing and his life, but the scientific, humanistic and historical contexts in which he lived. Readers expecting the rather thick tome to be an easy read are sorely mistaken. But although the text is dense, and at times difficult to read on account of being incredibly technical, the book is an essential book for anyone that loves history, computers, and science. I admit that I was expecting the book to be a much more in-depth look at Alan Turing’s life, and at times got lost trying to keep track of the famous scholars and their theorems, however the cultural, historical and scientific contexts were very illuminating. Many times authors writing about a certain time frame tend to hew only to the story of their protagonist and leave out historical nuance that would allow greater understanding. Hodge seems to understand that essential to understanding Alan Turing, we have to understand the times in which he lived. In the end, the author leaves us with a rich understanding of a conflicted man who despite his internal struggle went on to be a noted and important scholar who laid the foundation for computer science and artificial intelligence.