Book examines life of genius Alan Turing

Published: Wednesday, January 18, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 18, 2006 at 12:19 a.m.

"The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer"
By David Leavitt Atlas Books/W. W. Norton & Co.; $22.95


Book signing Thursday

  • What: Author and University of Florida professor David Leavitt to speak about his new book "The Man Who Knew
  • Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer"
  • When: 8 p.m. Thursday
  • Where: Goerings Book Store, 3433 West University Ave.
  • For more information: Call 378-0363

  • Maybe it's because I already knew the story - about the tragic genius who revolutionized mathematics, helped the British crack secret Nazi codes and died after biting into a poisoned apple. Or maybe I was just in the mood for fiction. For some reason, about halfway through University of Florida professor David Leavitt's short, readable life of Alan Turing, I put the book aside for a few days and turned instead to his most recent novel, "The Body of Jonah Boyd." It is actually a novel within a novel, ending with a self-referential twist that made me wonder whether Leavitt had been inspired by Turing's dizzying proof about undecidability in mathematics, in which a computer tries to swallow its own tail.
    Turing was a fellow at King's College, Cambridge, in 1936, when he confronted what might be called the mathematician's nightmare: the possibility of blindly devoting your life to what is an unsolvable problem.
    Turing's stroke of genius was to recast the issue - mathematicians call it the decision problem - in mechanical terms. A theorem and the instructions for proving it, he realized, could be thought of as input for a machine. If there was a solution, Turing's imaginary device would eventually come to a stop and print the answer. Although it was not his primary intention, he had discovered, in passing, the idea of the programmable computer.
    In "The Man Who Knew Too Much," Leavitt is faced with the task of giving a new shine to a life that has been scrutinized several times before. Turing's mother, Sara, wrote her own account shortly after his death, and in 1983 Andrew Hodges provided the definitive biography, with "Alan Turing: The Enigma." Inspired by Hodges, Hugh Whitemore turned the story into a play, "Breaking the Code," with Derek Jacobi in the starring role.
    What made Turing's story compelling enough for Broadway happened after his groundbreaking work at Cambridge. Hooked on the idea of mechanical problem-solvers, he helped design the machinery that deciphered the Germans' battle-front communications, an important factor in the Allied victory. A solitary, introspective man, he was quietly working at the University of Manchester when he was arrested for being a homosexual and forced to undergo a hormonal "cure." Two years later he was found dead with that apple, an apparent suicide committed by a man who had had a thing for Snow White.
    I was never able to get all the way through Hodges's formidable account, but "The Man Who Knew Too Much" can be read in a few afternoons.
    Some of the Cambridge scenes have a writerly touch. Frequently turning to E. M. Forster's novel "Maurice," Leavitt evokes what it might have been like to be a lonely young homosexual at King's College, and his description of Turing's classroom dialogues with the enigmatic Ludwig Wittgenstein reads like a Beckett play.
    The circumstances surrounding Turing's demise are murky enough that some people doubt he really killed himself. He had been using potassium cyanide in gold-plating experiments. The poisoning was conceivably accidental. Leavitt entertains he had become "a man who knew too much."
    More likely he was simply the man who couldn't connect, who decided in the end, as Leavitt beautifully puts it, "to camp it up a bit - to invest his departure from a world that had treated him shabbily with some of the gothic, eerie, colorful brilliance of a Disney film."
    One way or the other, his brain got caught in one of those inescapable loops. The cause of his death is an undecidable problem.

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