Dense biography breaks enigmatic cipher of genius’ life

in Daniel's Books in a Nutshell/Entertainment by

Historians and cryptanalysts know Alan Turing as the man behind the code-breaking machines that helped the Allies immeasurably in World War Two (WWII) by deciphering the Enigma code of Nazi Germany. Computer scientists know him as the man who came up with the principle of the universal machine, which eventually became his development of the leading design for a digital computer. Human rights activists know him as the genius who was forced to undergo chemical castration after having been prosecuted and deemed a criminal simply because of his homosexuality—and is largely considered to have committed suicide because of this humiliating treatment. The layman may know him for the “Turing test” (which was a test of a machine’s ability to behave in a manner as intelligent as a human) and his work regarding artificial intelligence.

But Alan Turing has largely remained a mystery from the general public—and recent popular culture, such as the film “The Imitation Game” have brought him back into the public eye. Andrew Hodges’ book, “Alan Turing: The Enigma”, is not only the book that inspired the film, but is also widely considered to be one of the most comprehensive and thorough biographies of the genius.

The book is indeed well-researched and thorough. Hodges has compiled an extremely detailed and fascinating biography from a large number of sources to provide a compelling and interesting look into who Alan Turing truly was. Covering the entire story from Turing’s childhood to his death in 1954, Hodges has written an excellent and obviously researched biography. The effort that went into the creation of the biography is clear.

In addition, Hodges is also sympathetic to the story of Turing and treats it with the utmost respect. The story of Turing is one of a man who underwent a great tragedy for being at odds with the society he lived in—despite his immeasurably important role in serving Britain in World War II, he was eventually criminalized, by the same government he served, for his homosexuality. Hodges, in telling this sensitive story, manages to be sympathetic and careful—a great feat that adds to the quality of this biography.

However, if I were to characterize this book in one word, that word would be “dense.” The thorough research and the excellent narrative have their downside in that the biography can be inaccessible to the general public. There are constant references to science, mathematics, engineering and law throughout the entire book, making it potentially unappealing to certain readers. When introducing the period of Turing’s life when he worked on breaking the Enigma code, Hodges digresses by presenting diagrams of the Enigma machines and discussing a basic introduction of ciphers and coding. When covering the incident during which Turing was criminalized for his homosexuality, Hodges quotes liberally from his sources regarding the legal status quo at the time regarding the issue. Throughout the novel, Hodges references documents regarding Turing, such as the letters and correspondence he exchanged with others.

Due to the high interest that the book generates (especially in light of the film), I would encourage all those interested to read it—especially those interested in history, biographies, or lengthy nonfiction coverage. Therefore, this book comes with my full recommendation—but be prepared to spend a while making your way through it. It will be worth it.

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