Alan Turing : the enigma : the book that inspired the film The Imitation Game

by Andrew Hodges

Paperback, 2014

Status

Available

Publication

Princeton, [New Jersey] : Princeton University Press

Description

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the British mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954) saved the Allies from the Nazis, invented the computer and artificial intelligence, and anticipated gay liberation by decades--all before his suicide at age forty-one. This classic biography of the founder of computer science, reissued on the centenary of his birth with a substantial new preface by the author, is the definitive account of an extraordinary mind and life. A gripping story of mathematics, computers, cryptography, and homosexual persecution, Andrew Hodges's acclaimed book captures both the inner and outer drama of Turing's life. Hodges tells how Turing's revolutionary idea of 1936--the concept of a universal machine--laid the foundation for the modern computer and how Turing brought the idea to practical realization in 1945 with his electronic design. The book also tells how this work was directly related to Turing's leading role in breaking the German Enigma ciphers during World War II, a scientific triumph that was critical to Allied victory in the Atlantic. At the same time, this is the tragic story of a man who, despite his wartime service, was eventually arrested, stripped of his security clearance, and forced to undergo a humiliating treatment program--all for trying to live honestly in a society that defined homosexuality as a crime.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member tikitu-reviews
A good biography, which manages to balance an explicit "gay agenda" along with the more impartial account of his intellectual life and peculiarities of character. It's an academic work with all sources carefully cited, which I appreciated also.

Turing of course comes across as a very sympathetic figure, but his quirks are made quite clear as well. Particularly interesting for me was the insight I gained into the British class system and how significant this was for the war effort and in general the 'high intellectual' culture. It seems as if Turing was such an odd bird he couldn't have achieved anything like as much as he did without being treated as an upper-class twit.

Also fascinating (and disturbing) was the institutionalised gay repression that (presumably) led to Turing's suicide. I've lost the page reference in the biography, but googling tells me that in 1991 homosexuality was still grounds for dismissal from the British military -- as I recall, Hodges comments on the policy change for the secret service, which was even later.
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LibraryThing member clfisha
A fascinating, detailed biography of a hugely important but largely unknown figure.I mean all I knew about Alan Turning was his legacy in computer science but he was much more than that.

He started life as a mathematician then WWII directed him into cryptanalysis (the infamous Enigma machine), afterwards he worked on the 1st computer and lastly became fascinated with mathematical biology. Always a genius he was also an outsider, partly due to his homosexuality which was illegal at the time and was a suggested cause behind his probable suicide at the age of 42.

Alan Turing did not leave much for a biographer and this book deals mostly with his large body of work. This was a bit of a problem for me as I am extremely bad at understanding maths and I felt the theories were not explained terribly well. If you do have a basic understanding you should be fine but otherwise you may want to think twice (although I found it easier once the work moved into cryptanalysis). I also found the book quite dry, especially during Turing's school days (reading books by George Orwell, whom he references, helps bring it alive) but as it progresses this matters less and less as his life becomes much more interesting.

One nice thing is that the author spends much of the time putting Turing's life in context so we also learn such things as the politics behind Enigma, the race to create the 1st computer and the social climate surrounding homosexuality during the time of his death.

Lastly it was written in 1983 (updated in 1990) but I don't think this has much impact as the UK government is still withholding information. I did find it interesting thinking how far science has come since the book was written, let alone since Alan Turing's time! All in all I would recommend this for anyone interested in Alan Turning or the history of computing (I know there are many separate books on Enigma).
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LibraryThing member LynnB
When I saw the movie, The Imitation Game, I became fascinated by Alan Turing. Being such a bookworm, my first thought was that I should read the book, expecting more depth and detail about Mr. Turing's life. I was very disappointed. This book goes into a lot of depth -- about mathematical problems and equations -- but all the interesting aspects of Mr. Turing's life were in the movie. The book is very long and , at times, boring. Alan Turing, however, remains a fascinating person and when the book dealt with his actual life, it was very interesting.… (more)
LibraryThing member GeoffSC
An amazing in depth biography, the author really tried to get into Alan Turing's shoes and mind. Alan was a very intelligent but complex person, made more difficult since he was a homosexual at a time of no rights for such people.
Alan's life is covered from early days of family life, following him through school, on to Cambridge, then the code-breaking work during the war, and subsequently his involvement in developing the first UK computers. Churchill was the man to lead the country through the war. Alan Turing was the man who helped the most break the enemies secret codes.
The author did a fine job showing Alan's brilliance. His love of abstract problems then wanting to find application for them.
I can't say I followed all the mathematics, political or philosophy discussions even having had a science education. I was intrigued at how he arrived at the idea of a Universal Computing Machine well before the advent of computers. Having worked on early business Computers (starting in 1966 on IBM1401G), I relived my early computing days following the discussions of building the first computers in the UK.
I found some parts tedious and anyone without an interest in computers may find it more so.
I read this book after having read the History of Bletchley Park and having visited BP in July this year. This helped visualise his time there.
This book is more than a biography of Alan Turing, it is also the history of computer beginnings, and a good description of social expectation before, during and after the war.
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LibraryThing member FKarr
took me a month to read, but it was worth it. Very frustrating to compare with the wretched movie that seemed to be dishonest about every point in Turing's life.
LibraryThing member encephalical
Engaging, but perhaps too thorough. I just don't care that his penmanship was messy, but I can see how if the author spent years pouring over Turing's correspondence that that would be a sticking point. Hodges also veers too much into analysis. Given the dearth of material from Turing himself, it seemed to me Hodges was extrapolating too much at times. I think there's a tighter, 400-500 page book hidden within the 700 pages.

I do have to give this props for being the first source I've encountered that really explained why early computers often used 40-bit words.
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LibraryThing member richardtaylor
An excellent biography of Alan Turing.
LibraryThing member natureinthecity
I got through “The Enigma” only recently. When I say I “got through” I mean it. Being 540 pages of very small print, it was conquered over weeks.

It was worth it.

Turing was a fascinating person with a very rich story which Hodge’s provides in the form of anecdotes from family and colleagues, letters written by Turing, and very fine detail of the time and society in which Alan lived.

Alan’s childhood, in particular tugged at my heart strings, being familiar enough to my own experiences, and traits I see in my eldest son, I felt it easy to put myself in his shoes.

(Alan Turing was not, that we will ever know, autistic. It is important to NOT jump to that conclusion. Yet he was, most certainly, different.)

I found it parts amusing, and parts heart wrenching. I also found myself angry that we didn’t learn about this man in school.

My only criticism of the book is that often times the book departs away from Alan’s story into long tangents about the development of math theories, and highly technical descriptions concerning cryptology (cryptography and cryptoanalysis as well). As a person born the 1970’s, I appreciated the historical explanation of the significance of cryptology to the war, and the attention to the intricacy of Mr. Turing’s projects. YET, I often felt lost, uninterested or confused while reading the long discussions of different theories. I think much of the book was written for people with backgrounds in maths and cryptology, not the average reader.

I hear that the movie "The Imitation Game" (screenplay based on this book) has been criticized for not enough explanation or being simplistic. I understand the desire to not bore or hopelessly confuse the audience. The important part is Mr. Turing as a person, which I hope they get right. If early reviews mean anything, it seems they have.

I will hold on to this book, and recommend others read it, skipping past the overly technical parts if need be.
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LibraryThing member payam-tommy
Good: another biography about world war.
Bad: another biography about world war.
Ugly: another biography about world war.

3.5
LibraryThing member celephicus
One of the best bios of an intellectual, warts and all. The gay pride angle grates a bit, but than I am just a reactionary repressed etc. etc.

One thing occurs to me: the British establishment looked on gays with horror as they thought that they could be blackmailed into spilling the secrets. Why not just tell your employer "I'm gay, but I'll keep quiet about it", then you couldn't be blackmailed.… (more)
LibraryThing member neddludd
This was possibly the most difficult biography I have ever read. Although it says it was written with lay people in mind, the author is a mathematical physicist at Oxford and probably has a different conception of his audience. Hodges' prose is elegant and dense, and be prepared for a serious read. However, once begun, this is a wonderfully satisfying work about the complex individual who might be "the father of computers." Turing was an independent soul, and his interests were vast--all grounded in whether there was a mathematical formula or concept that could explain the phenomena he was studying. In a 1936 seminal paper, he proposed a universal machine that, in effect, became the computer in all of its manifestations. Possibly even more important to history was Turing's pioneering work in breaking the German military codes during WWII, and thus ensuring the Nazis' defeat. His non-conformity extended to his homosexuality, which was, at the time, considered to be a serious, unspeakable crime he was convicted and forced to undergo chemical treatment for many months. Turing was not interested in fame or fortune--just in a life of the mind. This book is, in effect, two works. In one, in beautiful language Hodges conveys Turing's story. In the other, the author seeks to explain his and his colleagues' theories, and I found myself skipping those sections because of their difficulty to this lay person. Steve Jobs described his goal at Apple to be at the nexus of technology and the humanities; Turing spent his adult life at that place 50 years before Apple sold its first computer. And without his foundational work, Apple would not exist.… (more)
LibraryThing member eclecticdodo
This is a very detailed biography of Alan Turing. I was given the paperback as a present but struggled to read enough of it at a time to follow the thread. Listening to audiobooks while standing around at the park or out running is my way around that, so when it came up on sale I bought it. There is quite a lot of mathematical theory in the book, which I found fascinating. And it really comes across how revolutionary Turing's thinking was, both in his work and in his private life. However, I would say it is just too long (37 hours in audio) with more background information than is required. While it was interesting to read details of the global political situation of the 1940s and 50s, much of that information was superfluous to the aims of the book, likewise the history of homosexuality as expressed in literature. A good book, but it would be improved by some harsh editing.… (more)
LibraryThing member jms001
An epic dive into the life and times of one Mr. Alan Turing.

This is a really thick book…so think about how much time you want to spend reading a biography about Alan Turing. Not that any of the writing is bad, but there are some parts that I just didn't find interesting. I think I was looking for a biography that showcased many of the important moments of his life without getting into such minute detail of the characters he met in his life. If you are looking for the main ideas of his life, then this probably isn't for you. But what the biography does offer, it is 100% genuine and detailed. You'll finish the book knowing not just the main facets of his life, but everything else in between.

Pick this book up if you enjoy in depth, detailed reads about one of the greatest mathematicians in recent history.
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LibraryThing member malexmave
The question if you will like this book basically comes down to one decision: Do you actually want to know the technical and scientific details of what Turing did? If yes, this is the book for you. It contains a lot of details on why the concept of Turing Machines was invented, which problem they solved, how the cryptoanalysis of the Enigma worked, et cetera. If you get bored already thinking about this, stay away from this book.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. In places it gave a bit too many details, but those were usually long descriptions of his private life and philosophical excursions of the author. As for the nitty-gritty technical details, the book gave a LOT of details (which I wanted). It's still a tad shy of explaining the whole cryptoanalysis process that led to breaking the Enigma, but it gave enough details to get an understanding of how the concept worked.

If this sounds like a book for you, go ahead and buy it. You will probably not find a better book for this purpose. Just be prepared to read a lot of personal History of Turing (which is to be expected for a biography) before you get to the technical stuff.
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LibraryThing member SirRoger
I liked this book. I enjoyed learning more about Alan Turing's life, and in particular about the struggles he faced and the innovations he introduced to the world. Anyone who has seen the movie The Imitation Game (which was inspired by this biography) knows that Alan Turing's story is a fascinating and a dramatic one, and it deserves to be told.

So I did like it. Reasons why I'm hesitant to rate it as "really liked," can be expressed in just one or two points. Mainly, it is because this book is thorough. Andrew Hodges, the author, is himself a mathematician, and he explains the projects that Turing worked on in detail. Matters of cryptography, mathematical theory, endocrinology, computation, all are explained extensively by Hodges. He does a good job, but a lot of it is a bit over my little old head. So I kinda had to let it wash over me a little, which meant that sometimes I wasn't exactly excited to continue. The parts about Turing himself, and his interactions and relationships with others, were easier to follow, and very interesting.

So if you're interested to read this book because you liked the movie, I would think about it a bit more before jumping into a commitment. But if you're a programmer, or interested in computational or mathematical theory, as well as Turing's life, then you will definitely love this book.
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LibraryThing member GalenWiley
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the British mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954) saved the Allies from the Nazis, invented the computer and artificial intelligence, and anticipated gay liberation by decades--all before his suicide at age forty-one. This acclaimed biography of the founder of computer science, with a new preface by the author that addresses Turing's royal pardon in 2013, is the definitive account of an extraordinary mind and life.

Capturing both the inner and outer drama of Turing's life, Andrew Hodges tells how Turing's revolutionary idea of 1936--the concept of a universal machine--laid the foundation for the modern computer and how Turing brought the idea to practical realization in 1945 with his electronic design. The book also tells how this work was directly related to Turing's leading role in breaking the German Enigma ciphers during World War II, a scientific triumph that was critical to Allied victory in the Atlantic. At the same time, this is the tragic account of a man who, despite his wartime service, was eventually arrested, stripped of his security clearance, and forced to undergo a humiliating treatment program--all for trying to live honestly in a society that defined homosexuality as a crime.

The inspiration for a major motion picture starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, Alan Turing: The Enigma is a gripping story of mathematics, computers, cryptography, and homosexual persecution.

**
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