Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Alan Turing: this time, the book, which is excellent

I wanted to write a letter to my friends about the movie The Imitation Game and the book that, the poster says, "inspired it". I did.
If my writing has any value at all, it is in clarifying my thoughts for myself and potentially for others.
But what exactly do I want to say about Alan Turing and the film about him? Simply that he was a genius who contributed immensely to his country then killed himself, assumedly at least in part due to his mistreatment (because of his homosexuality) by the country whose defense he made such a contribution to.
I enjoyed the film, but as soon as it was over I began to have second thoughts about its veracity and quality. Having reflected on it for a few days, I simply cannot comprehend how it won any awards.

The book Alan Turing: The Enigma, or even the Foreword by Douglas Hofstadter or the Preface by the author (Andrew Hodges) 30 years after his biography of Alan Turing was published, is far more interesting than the movie, whose sole merits are that it takes only two hours to watch and it will promote sales of the excellent book. The e-book of Hodges's magnum opus can be had for a little over $5 and the sample including the Foreword and Preface and much of the first chapter can be obtained for free. Read them and you already have your money's worth -- and know more about Alan Turing than the movie will teach you.
A major merit of the book is his portrayal of Turing as a human being rather than a superman. It corrected my misunderstanding of his achievements as inexplicable. No, what was wonderfully unique about him was not so much his foresight or vision or discoveries as his complexity: some things he understood and explained before others had, but mainly he was exceptional because he could do what others had done without knowing about them, without using their methods, sometimes less elegantly (especially in his written explanations) but often more simply, more "elegantly" in the mathematical sense. He was never "best in the class" but in retrospect his legacy excelled, and others' stand in the shadows. It's fun to cheer for the underdog.
I've still read little about his productive wartime period, but the Foreword and post-publication Preface give very inspiring overviews and summaries of his career and contributions to mathematics and cryptography.
May 9, 2015