Skip to main content

Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age – B. Jack Copeland *****

Alan Turing is a name that has grown in stature over the years. When I first got interested in computers all you really heard about was the Turing test – the idea of testing if a computer could think by having a conversation by teletype and seeing if you could tell if there was a computer or a human at the other end. Then came the revelations of the amazing code breaking work at Bletchley Park. Now, though, we know that Turing was much more than this, the single person who most deserves to be called the father of the computer (we allow Babbage to be grandfather).
All this and much more comes through in B. Jack Copeland’s superb biography of Turing. It’s not surprising this book (and its competitors) is on sale now. 2012 is the hundredth anniversary of Turing’s birth. And it is a timely reminder of just how important Turing was to the development of the the technology that is at the heart of much of our everyday lives (including the iPad I’m typing this on today).
If I had to find fault at all with this book, it can be a little summary in some aspects of Turing’s private life – but I suspect this reflects the lack of information from a very private man. However if, like me, you’re a bit of a computer geek it would be impossible not to be fascinated by the description of his ideas and the technology that was developed from them, beautifully written by Copeland. I’ve read plenty before about Enigma, but the section on this was still interesting, and the Tunny material (a later, more sophisticated German coding device, to crack which the Colossus computer was developed) was all new to me.
Similarly, I hadn’t realised how many firsts belong in the UK rather than the US. I knew Turing’s work led to the first stored program electronic computer – the first true computer in a modern sense – but I hadn’t realised, for instance that Turing was the first to write the code for computer generated music, with the first computer music in the world produced using that code in Manchester (contrary to the myths you are likely to see online).
Although some of the personal life information is a little sketchy, Copeland really delivers on Turing’s death. I had always accepted the story that he committed suicide with a poisoned apple as a result of the ‘chemical castration’ he chose as an alternative to prison for admitting homosexual acts. Copeland tears this myth to pieces. Turing had endured the hormone treatment with amusement – and it had finished a year before his death. By then he was fully recovered. He appears to have been happy and positive at the time of his death. He left a part-eaten apple by his bed every night. And he was experimenting on electroplating in a room adjacent to his bedroom – using a solution that gave off hydrogen cyanide. The postmortem was very poor, without testing whether the cyanide that killed him had been ingested or inhaled. The evidence seems strong that Turing’s death was an unfortunate accident, not the tragic suicide that is usually portrayed.
In the end I can strongly recommend that anyone with an interest in computing should rush out and buy a copy of this book. Well written, fascinating and overthrowing a number of myths, it’s a must-have.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…