Saturday 28 August 2021

Guest Review: Alan Turing: The Enigma By Andrew Hodges

The official book behind the Academy Award-winning film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley

Alan Turing was the mathematician whose cipher-cracking transformed the Second World War. Taken on by British Intelligence in 1938, as a shy young Cambridge don, he combined brilliant logic with a flair for engineering. In 1940 his machines were breaking the Enigma-enciphered messages of Nazi Germany’s air force. He then headed the penetration of the super-secure U-boat communications.

But his vision went far beyond this achievement. Before the war he had invented the concept of the universal machine, and in 1945 he turned this into the first design for a digital computer.

Turing's far-sighted plans for the digital era forged ahead into a vision for Artificial Intelligence. However, in 1952 his homosexuality rendered him a criminal and he was subjected to humiliating treatment. In 1954, aged 41, Alan Turing took his own life.

Review: This is a very detailed biography of the mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954). It describes his life, his family background and subsequent education at Sherborne School, Cambridge University and Princeton University. He was elected a fellow of King’s College Cambridge in 1935.

However, it is for his work on cryptanalysis, or code-breaking, and his pioneering work on computer science and artificial intelligence that he is best remembered, although due to the secrecy of the work, his role in code-breaking could not be publicised during his lifetime. In 1938, whilst a fellow at King’s College Cambridge, he started carrying out part-time work for the Government Code and Cypher School. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, he started working full-time at their new Bletchley Park premises. He worked on breaking the German Enigma code, in particular the version used by the German Navy. With fellow code-breaker Gordon Welchman, he designed the “Bombe” machine, an improvement on an earlier Polish design, which was an electro-mechanical device that used statistical analysis to perform numerous calculations rapidly in order to break the daily key for the Enigma code. He also developed various statistical procedures for breaking other coding systems.

Prior to the war, he had written papers describing the design of what became known as the universal Turing machine for computing. After the war, he continued this work, firstly at the National Physical Laboratory, where he designed the Automatic Computing Engine, one of the first designs for a computer with an internal programme, and subsequently at Manchester University. In 1952, he was prosecuted for a homosexual act, which was illegal at the time, and pleaded guilty to a charge of gross indecency. He served a year’s probation, during which he was required to receive hormone treatment which, at the time, was believed to curb homosexual behaviour. In 1954, he was found dead at his home from cyanide poisoning and an inquest returned a verdict of suicide.

This is a long and detailed book, at over 700 pages. I listened to the audio version which is 30 hours long. I felt that there was a lot of unnecessary detail, with the author Andrew Hodges attempting to give the background and motivations to Alan Turing’s momentous, but tragically short, life. The author is a mathematician himself, and I did not understand many of the mathematical theories described in the book. Although the subject’s life was very interesting and inspiring, it is only in recent years that his contribution to the war effort has come to be recognised. Although this is a very detailed and well-researched biography, I felt that it was overlong with too much background information obscuring the subject’s brief but exciting life.

To order your copy now, just click the link: UK or US

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