The conflicted life of ""an ordinary English homosexual atheist mathematician"": Alan Turing (1912-1954), of cryptanalysis...



The conflicted life of ""an ordinary English homosexual atheist mathematician"": Alan Turing (1912-1954), of cryptanalysis and computer fame. From his own mathematics and gay-rights background, Hedges reconstructs Turing's discoveries and his dilemma in a kind of dynamic tension--seeing Turing, with considerable subtlety, as an intellectual and sexual individualist. This is not a book for the casual or lay reader, however: in describing Turing's mathematical coups at Cambridge in the 1930s, and his work on the Enigma machine at Bletchley Park, Hedges deals matter-of-factly with abstract concepts and technical detail. The pages are populated, not just for color, with the likes of von Neumann, Wittgenstein, and Michael Polanyi. But there is also an acute sense of the surrounding, changing world--and, cumulatively, some striking formulations. Turing publicly announces, in 1947, that no line separates the ""unconscious automatic machine"" and the ""higher realms of the intellect."" Says Hedges: ""At heart it was the same problem of mind and matter that Eddington had tried to rescue for the side of the angels by invoking the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. But there was a difference. Eddington had addressed himself to the determination of physical law. . . . But the Turing challenge was on a different level of deterministic description, that of the abstract logical machine. . . . There was another difference. Victorians like Butler, Shaw, and Carpenter had concerned themselves with identifying a soul, a spirit, or life-force. Alan Turing was talking about 'intelligence.'"" Intelligence, Hedges goes on to note, had won the war; for Turing's generation, intelligence had routed Blimpish stupity; the socialist postwar state was going to be administered by intelligent functionaries. (But: ""The intelligent machine. . . would cut the intellectual expert down to size."") The personal story is feelingful and restrained. Turing's first, great love died at 19; his ""gentle advances"" were often rebuffed, without ill-feeling; he made no secret of his ""tendencies,"" except to his family; he was once engaged (to a woman undaunted by those tendencies); by the 1950s, he was part of England's ""network of flashing eyes."" And in 1952, rashly reporting a burglary involving a young lover, he was charged with ""gross indecency""; pleaded guilty--evincing no guilt; and accepted organo-hormone treatment in lieu of prison. In 1954, seemingly himself, he committed suicide. (Examining the political clime, Hedges remarks: ""The smallest event could have been the trigger."") Sophisticated and nuanced.

Pub Date: Nov. 18, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1983