Thursday, April 2, 2015

Alan Turing: the Enigma, by Andrew Hodges

Original cover image from pbsstatic

When I ordered this book a couple of years ago while doing background research for my novel in progress, The Habit of Secrecy, I had to wait for a copy to come from Italy. Published in the 1980s, it was hard to get.

Now, since the release of The Imitation Game, people are far more aware of Ultra, Enigma and the short but extraordinarily productive life of the mathematician Alan Turing, codebreaker extraordinaire who invented the world's first computer at Bletchley Park during WWII, and was also the first to conceive of the idea of artificial intelligence.

This biography is a thorough and sympathetic portrait of a Cambridge- educated scientific genius who was plucked from the academic world of mathematical research to serve at the secret facility of Bletchley Park. He soon decided that breaking the enigma code required a computing machine, and promptly invented one. After the Americans entered the war, he crossed the Atlantic in 1942 to work with US colleagues. He returned home on a troopship in the spring of 1943, the only civilian aboard.

Andrew Hodges, an Oxford mathematician, begins the volume with an account of Alan's early life. He recounts details of the boy's eccentric interests, his relationship with his family, and the loss of his treasured childhood friend Christopher, who introduced him to the whole idea of codebreaking at school. The author shares a number of details that show insight into Turing's character.

Early in the war, Alan Turing took responsibility for a Viennese refugee, Bob Adelman, finding him a home with friends, and later paying for his education. Turing kept in touch with this young man, doing what he could for him. When he returned from America, he brought Bob an electric shaver, for which he built a transformer so that it could be used on UK power.

Nicknamed The Prof at Bletchley, Turing created a makeshift clay chess set and baked it in the fireplace at the pub where he lodged. This was used to play chess with friends, including Joan, a fellow maths whiz who venerated him, and to whom he was briefly engaged. He was known for his sense of humour as well as his eccentricities, which included wearing his gas mask to cycle to work as a defence against hay fever.

A fellow mathematician, Hodges goes into the technicalities of Turing's codebreaking activities in enough detail to fascinate, but not to bore the reader. This book provides a clear glimpse into the life of someone with the right skills who was in the right place at the right time to make an incalculable contribution to the Allied victory in WWII.

At the same time, the book shows something altogether more tragic. While rigid class structures and social rules were of necessity relaxed to facilitate the work of the motley group at Bletchley during the wartime emergency, this latitude did not continue afterwards. Turing was gay, and unwisely, he made no attempt to hide it. In Manchester after the war, a young man stole from him, and he reported the incident to the police. Perhaps he was as unaware of social consequences as he was hyper-aware of mathematical and logical ones. In any case, he admitted to having had an affair with the thief, even though he knew homosexuality was illegal.

This led to charges against Turing, and an ignominious court case. To avoid a prison term and ensure he could continue working, he agreed to take hormone treatments to reduce his libido. At this time, he was also stripped of the top level security clearance which he had enjoyed since before Bletchley.

Alan Turing was found dead of cyanide poisoning at the age of 54. He was deemed to have committed suicide using a cyanide-laced apple, though many thought accidental death a more logical explanation. After all, he had just registered for a conference. Looking back today, it remains hard to fathom exactly what led to this tragic early death. Turing was at the peak of his intellectual powers. He was working at Manchester University on advanced computing.

Like others who did secret war work, Turing was sworn to secrecy and received no recognition when the war was over. After his death, it took twenty years before a computing award was established in his honour. Only much later was his London birthplace to marked, according to custom, with a blue plaque. In 2001, the first statue of him was erected in Manchester. Today, there is also a statue at Bletchley Park, now a museum with Alan Turing's name prominent on the Roll of Honour.

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