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Hodges, Andrew: 'Alan Turing'

Andrew Hodges
'Alan Turing: The Enigma'
Walker and Company, NY
ISBN 0-8027-7580-2

This is more than just the first full-length biography of a gay mathematician. In a masterpiece of scientific writing, mathematical physicist Andrew Hodges—best known to gay readers as co-author of the wonderful pamphlet With Downcast Gays - tells the story of one of the major mathematicians of our century, and one who developed a high level of consciousness about his gay identity. Alan Turing (1912–1954) was, in a real sense, the “father” of the modern computer. In a paper written in 1936 he described a theoretical “universal machine” (which has passed into scientific literature as a “Turing machine”) and used it to show that not every mathematical problem is “solvable,” thus answering a question posed by the mathematician David Hilbert at the close of the 19th century. By 1945 Turing had independently conceived its realization as the modern computer. That is, he had arrived at the automatic digital computer with internal program storage. In. the meantime he had been the top mathematical consultant in the British cryptological effort in World War II, and in particular was in charge of breaking the U-boat secret codes for the first half of the war, thereby contributing as much as any individual to the Allied victory in the Atlantic.

The general public could hardly have understood Turing’s early mathematical achievement; during his life they never heard about his war effort, for it was never mentioned by him or anyone else. (Many of the documents used by Hodges remained “classified” for some 30 years after the war.) To add to this silence, his part in developing the computer was written out of the history books: “Already by 1950, Alan Turing was an un-person, the Trotsky of the computer revolution.”

A graduate and fellow of King’s College, Cambridge University, Turing had worked independently. The one person able to completely appreciate his early mathematical results was the American logician Alonzo Church, who had simultaneously arrived at very nearly the same goal. Turing then decided to study under Church at Princeton University, where he was a fellow for the years 1936–38 (and where he received a Ph.D., with a dissertation on a topic suggested by Church). He returned to the United States twice: for several months in the winter of 1942–43 as higher liaison between Britain and the United Status, and again to attend a computer conference at Harvard University in January 1947. In a classic paper of 1950, reprinted as “Can a Machine Think?,” Turing proposed a test to answer this question and gave a penetrating analysis of what it means “to think.”

In 1950, two years after receiving an appointment at Manchester University, Turing moved into his own house in a village 10 miles away. It was burglarized in 1952 by an acquaintance of a young man with whom he was having an affair. When Turing’s friend told him who might have robbed him, Turing reported this to the police, who were able to march fingerprints with those taken from Turing’s home. The police then returned to question him further, apparently about the burglary, but in reality about the sexual relationship with his friend, which Turing made no effort to hide. The two were then charged with “gross indecency.” On conviction the younger man was put on probation; Turing was required to submit to a year’s “scientific” treatment with female hormones, which had the effect of making him impotent and causing him to grow breasts. Later he seemed to be making a comeback, but in 1954, shortly before his 42nd birthday, Turing died after biting into an apple he had coated with cyanide.

When Hodges began, this project in 1978, he wished to set a high standard in writing about gay people in the past as well as to “give an account for the general reader of what mathematics is about, and why people care about it.” He has succeeded on all counts and along the way has unraveled, as much as seems humanly possible, the “enigma” that was Alan Turing. (“Enigma” was, also, the name of the machine used by the Germans to encode secret messages.) The reader is taken step by step through the process of deciphering codes, with careful descriptions of the mathematics and machines used.

Turing’s role in developing the computer (and lest we forget, Britain, not America, did it first) is a fascinating—and previously untold—story. Hodges restores Turing to his rightful place. He also traces Turing’s later concentration on problems at the borderline of mathematics-chemistry-biology, resulting in the important paper “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis” (1952).

But Hodges is perhaps at his best in integrating all of this into the development of Turing as a gay man and freedom-seeker, from his first real love in secondary school and early questioning of authority to his final struggles to preserve his personal integrity.

Turing allowed no one to be a close friend who would not accept his homosexuality, and he did not hesitate to disclose this even to his co-workers at one of the most secret operations of the war. But he was denied the personal freedom that was essential to him.

The book concludes with a thorough and penetrating analysis of the social, psychological and political climate that acted to deny him his freedom. Unable to speak of his wartime experience, denied (for reasons no doubt related to the rise of McCarthyism in the United States) a role in the further development of the computer, and persecuted by a State determined to take even his sexuality away from him, Turing saw his sphere of personal freedom shrink until there was no longer room for him to think, to feel, to live. That this was so is laid out by Hodges for all to see. That it will not be seen by many is shown in the New York Times Book Review, where the otherwise deeply appreciative Douglas R. Hofstadter still said that Alan Turing “brought about his own downfall.”
Alan Turing: The Enigma is the first serious synthesis of mathematical and gayliberation insights and does indeed set a new standard in writing about gay people in the past. It is the moving story of a man with a brilliant mind, who refused to deny his feelings, in a search to understand - and live - true life.

Added:  Sunday, November 05, 2006
Reviewer:  editor
Related web link:  Homepage of Andrew Hodges
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