Reviewed by Jim Young
Professor B. Jack Copeland
Published by Oxford University Press
Professor Copeland’s assertion that Turing stands alongside Churchill and Eisenhower with regard to their contributions to winning the Second World War certainly made me sit up!
We think we know Turing the man and what he did, and the chapters on the code breaking at Bletchley remind us of the importance of his work for the war effort, but do we, can we, really know Turing?
At Bletchley where the complexity of the codes taunted the ingenuity of Turing and his colleagues one can feel the tension born of the sheer necessity of their task to save countless lives as they prosecuted the enemy’s codes? Their intellect was their weapon and this book documents the eccentricities that matched these soaring intellects – an almost Alice in Wonderland pastiche.
But this concatenation of minds was the germinal lattice for the birth of the computer – the chance meetings the interlocutor in the development of the Bombe and Colossus.
The secrets of the lives of the wartime code breakers have been hidden for a long time – in the UK they were buried by the official secrets act when the war ended. This is why Turing’s name is noticeably absent from the histories of the development of computers, histories that ache to tell of the prescient genius of Turing’s idea for a universal machine running from a stored program. Although the high performance personal computer and smart phone are ubiquitous today one can still feel the excitement of these nascent ideas all those years ago.
As the various players and teams competed to design and produce the first computer to run from a stored program Turing’s name and influence crop up time and time again. It was often from reading Turing’s early papers that the computer engineers and developers got their direction. But the story is one of missed opportunities to collaborate, and the progress that might have leapt forward was pedestrianised. The narrative is replete with reports of parallel working born of competitive egos that resulted in a sad negative synergism. As we move to more recent developments such as research into artificial intelligence we are reminded that Turing had these ideas years ago.
Turing’s brush with the law due to his homosexuality that resulted in a year-long probation and the draconian hormonal “treatment” are all visited in a fascinating chapter that ruminates on his suicide, or was it an accident? Or even murder? Professor Copeland is of the opinion that the inquest was not thorough enough to answer these questions and that “the jury is still out”.
The book effuses the tears of frustration and intellectual travails that were associated with dismantling the enemy’s codes, revitalises the personae dramatis, and wails at the occluded historical record of this idiosyncratic man with his towering intellect and his complicated life. How I wish I could have met him! However, thanks to Professor Copeland’s book we can walk with Alan Turing through his finest hours.