The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer – David Leavitt

THWKTMI knew someone who worked in Bletchley Park during World War II, though he steadfastly refused to talk about it. He got a first class degree in mathematics in Cambridge and there was no way that they were going to waste his brain in the forces.

There are other accounts of Turing’s life, for example the 1983 biography after secret documents were released did they not give him his due. They ignore his sexuality or see it as a tragic blot on his career

Turing was a literalist – what we know label as Aspergers Syndrome. His ID card was left unsigned as he hadn’t been told to write on it. He couldn’t read between the lines.

The world owes much, probably its very survival, to him and to other ‘mad’ men. Godel was convinced that someone was tying to poison him as in Snow White. Blackboard erasing took an extra ten minutes of silence waiting for it ‘to dry’.

Wittgenstein’s inspiriting, off-the-cuff lectures demanded a regular attendance commitment and you weren’t to treat common sense like an umbrella left outside.

 Turing was absent-minded, naïve, oblivious to the forces that threatened him. Was his suicide like Snow White – or an experiment gone wrong? Homosexuality and belief in computer intelligence were both seen as threats to religion. He saw nothing wrong with his homosexuality. He was an outsider so he saw things that others didn’t but also missed things e.g. a rival thesis published before his. As a child he invented words e.g. quockling = seagulls fighting over food, greasicle = candle guttering. He knew underlying principles, not just how to do sums. Watching school sport, he was thinking intellectually on the sidelines. His body and brain were like a machine according to a science book. At school, his form master complained about his scruffy work. A doctor had recommended the study of mathematics as a cure for homosexuality. He went up to Kings Cambridge, a liberal college. He believed that limits are contrary to the nature of maths. Bletchley’s secrecy made a double life easy.

TMWKTM 2German laziness made un-encryption easier. He wore a gas mask on his bike, counted revolutions of wheels, his trousers tied with string with pyjamas underneath them. He gave the impression that he didn’t notice women but was probably afraid of them.

Philosophical issues are mused upon: freewill and determinism, spirit and body, Is God to blame for how we learn, any more than a teacher? Turing suggests that if God were smarter he would have designed our brains better.

 The homophobia of the period is well portrayed: security risk and blackmail, chemical castration and weight gain.

 So is the politics: German maths reduced chaos to order, anti-war sentiment, he sympathised with Prince Edward against the archbishop – cf. homosexuality in public schools not talked about. Maths is not neutral – it was used by Germany to encrypt and by US to make atomic bomb.

The history is accurate – it gives Islam its due re- maths discoveries; biscuits were rationed to stop students ‘making a meal of them’.

All in all, a very worthwhile book. One dissenting voice in our group disliked the book because of pages and pages of mathematical formulae. He said that it ‘spoiled the flow of the book’; I advised him simply to skim through to the next bit of normal prose but he was unable to do that. He has to read a book straight through. Perhaps he, too, had Aspergers or was never taught how to skim read.

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