Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Book Review: "Alan Turing: The Enigma"

This book has been on my radar for years now. I found it after one of those tipping points where you finally hit the nth reference to a person or idea and you find your ignorance about it embarrassing. By the way I find that these instances only increase with the more you act upon them. Ignorance really is bliss. Anyway, along comes the film starring Sherlock himself and I found myself highly entertained by the story and wanting to know more. So it was time to tackle this volume and I come to tackle the audiobook.
22551914Firstly I want to cover the book and it's difference to the movie, because looking at the words on the print cover, "The Book That Inspired the Film 'The Imitation Game'", it leads you to a sense that a biopic from a biography should be fairly accurate. It seems that the movie took a lot of liberties and while there were not many huge outright lies, there were plenty of distortions, simplifications and exaggerations. There is a little part of me that is offended, but there is another larger part of me that is not surprised. Alan Turing was not a stereotypical genius nerd in a world that did not appreciate him. He did have a huge battle to overcome adversity due to his work being outlandish and misunderstood. It seems like Hollywood latches onto the 'Beautiful Mind' + Sheldon Cooper cookie cutter a little too much. 

I feel that I should also say that I did enjoy the movie. As far as movies go it was entertaining and also a bit educational. But I guess going into this book I expected a bit more continuity. Cumberbatch's Turing is not Hodge's biography Turing.

Hodge's biography offers a traditional chronological look at Turing's life, from a short section on his lineage to his cremation on the last page. But there is a lot more in here than what you would bargain for. Turing's work and the work leading up to is is explained in great detail. Using the term 'in depth' may be a gross under exaggeration. There is also a large section focused upon the laws concerning 'perversion' a at the time, which Turing was convicted for. If you were to remove the sections concerning math, engineering and law you'll find a book that weighs only a small percentage of the original. 

I guess what I am trying to say is that this book is not for the layman. I can only imagine that there will be a lot of copies of this book abandoned on planes, trains and bookshelves because a fan of the movie picked this book up wanting to know more, just like I did. The large sections on mathematical logic I did follow the gist of somewhat, helped along by my greater understanding of maths than the average person. Large sections of this book would only be completely understandable by people with degrees in mathematics. I chose more mathematics subjects in my science degree than the norm, so I have some sense of what is going on in these passages. I pity anyone trying to make it through without some knowledge of this type of maths. If you are a person who hates 'info-dumps' you are going to loathe this book.

But on the positive side, this was the right book at the right time for the right person. I have often found that there is no better way to learn about a person than to find the highest rated biography of that person on Goodreads that is at least 500 pages long. I have been stung with too many shorter biographies that leave me unsatisfied and finding out more information on the person's Wikipedia page. I wanted to know more about Turing and my god I found out a whole lot more.

Of course it's not all about volume. Both the writer and narrator kept me entertained for just over 30 hours. The writer was sympathetic to his subject and yet portrayed his great failings also. I really do feel that I met a person who I can call a hero (I hate that word and I am sure that there is a far greater compliment). Turing had great determination, a high regard for the truth in his work and personal life, and  a scientific approach to everything he undertook. He may be known as being a mathematician, but he was an even greater scientist who straddled fields in a time when fields were clearly defined. He often found that there was no perfect audience for his papers and that some fields would only appreciate some aspects, while other parts would not be understood at all. He was converging the sciences with mathematics.

So despite all the negatives that I noted earlier, for me not only a book to be treasured, but an introduction to a man that is greatly misunderstood and hugely under-appreciated. I want a portrait of him up on my wall alongside my Darwin portrait. I am going to get my hands on some of his writing and try to get my head around more of the maths.