Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges | Book Review

Alan Turing: The Enigma
(The copy that I read had a different cover... a "movie-tie in" cover.  Not a fan of that.)

Alan Turing: The Enigma is an exhaustive, in-depth biography of Alan Turing, a British mathematician, a genius, who was instrumental to helping the Allied effort during WWII.  I picked up the biography because my mom told me that the movie was really good, but the hubby wasn't interested in seeing it.  I know that sounds odd, but that's how it goes in our house.  I kinda forget that the TV/DVD player exists when left to my own devices, in favor of books.

Back to the book.  It's probably the most thorough biography I have ever read.  Topping out at just under 700 pages, with an additional 50+ pages of notes and bibliography, there isn't a moment of Alan Turing's life left unaccounted for.  However, I didn't begrudge any of the reading time.  The pace kept moving right along, without ever getting bogged down with extraneous information.

The biography starts with a brief chapter outlining Alan's heritage; his grandparents and parents.  This gives the reader insight right away into what would come, when Alan took up mathematics, a career with little visible results (in his parents' eyes).  In fact, evidence shows that his mother never truly understood what he did.  As we move through Alan's childhood and schooling, we start to see the development of his genius and his personality.  Alan was not a typical young man, much preferring to read science and math nonfiction to playing sports.  We also see the development of what may have been his first homosexual relationship, and how the loss of that dear friend (more than a friend?) to a genetic illness affected him at such a crucial juncture of his life.

The meat of the book deals with his work at Bletchley during WWII, helping develop machines (what would in hindsight be recognizable as very early forerunners to the modern computer) to break the German codes.  This gave the Allied forces invaluable information, and did much to help the war effort.  I believe this is what the movie focuses on.

I will admit that there are a few sections that didn't really completely resonate with me.  Not the author's fault!  Not bad writing!  I'm just not a mathematical genius.  I work in a library.  The extent of my average daily math use is counting... to find nonfiction titles arranged according to the Dewey Decimal system.  I don't feel like I missed any important info by skimming the few mathematically dense pages, so I would assure potential readers that they don't need to be Einstein Jr. to enjoy this book.

Along with the sections explaining Alan's work on machines and mathematics, there's lots and lots of "human interest."  This is what I live for!  All the details about what he was like to work with (not surprisingly, he was a bit eccentric) and his hobbies and his career path.  (Speaking of:  this book was written about a Brit by a Brit, so I was slightly confused on some of the academic path information.  For example, his parents worked hard to get him into public school, which was implied was better than private school.  Here in the USA, private school is generally regarded as the better option.)  

Overall, a pretty good read!  But not for the very casual reader.  I'm a fast and intense reader, and it took me nearly 2 weeks to read.  However, for anyone interested in mathematics and cryptoanalysis, this book won't disappoint.

*I checked out my copy of Alan Turing from my local library, and racked up late fines because it was so very long!

No comments:

Post a Comment