Skip to main content

The Turing Guide - Jack Copeland et al ****

There have been plenty of biographies of Alan Turing, including Jack Copeland's own excellent Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age, but this chunky volume is something quite different - a massive, 42 section collection of articles about different aspects of Turing's work, from the inevitable Enigma and Tunny deciphering working during the Second World War, through the development of programmable computers, the Turing test and Turing's little-known foray into biology.

Like all such collections, it suffers a little from overlap in sections and variability in quality, however what the approach enables the authors to do is to go into far more depth than I have seen elsewhere. So, for instance, there is an article on the use of the Manchester computers to produce the first computer-generated music which includes the details of how this was programmed and an analysis of the notes produced (and how the recording was made at the wrong speed, changing the frequencies). Similarly there is far more depth on the approaches taken to crack the German codes, the mechanisms of the bombes and Collosus computers used at Bletchley Park. This is a goldmine of information if you enjoy delving into the depths of these examples of human ingenuity.

I did find that after about the first half I was rather losing steam. The sections on AI and the mind, biology and mathematics seemed less approachable than the rest, though that may just be reader fatigue. Even so there's lots here that will appeal. Only one section stands out as particularly poor - a contribution by Stephen Wolfram which is entitled 'A century of Turing' but might have been better described as 'How Turing was Nearly as Clever as I am', as it seems far more about Wolfram than Turing.

The biggest appeal of this book is likely to be for those who want to dig into more depth in the ways that Enigma and Tunny were dealt with, and in those early ACE and Baby computers, than can be covered in a typical scientific biography. There are also some highlights of information about Turing the person I have not seen elsewhere, although the Guide doesn't really work to give a rounded picture of the man. Rather than a book to read end-to-end, this collection seems better suited as a reference on these different aspects of Turing's work, providing excellent snapshots of this remarkable individual, who should have been recognised far earlier for his contributions than security restrictions allowed.



Paperback:  

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A Crack in Everything - Marcus Chown *****

This is a book about black holes - and there are two ways to look at these amazing phenomena. One is to meander about in endless speculation concerning firewalls and holographic universes and the like, where there is no basis in observation, only mathematical magic. This, for me, is often closer to science fiction than science fact. The alternative, which is what Marcus Chown does so well here (apart from a single chapter), is to explore the aspects of theory that have observational evidence to back them up - and he does it wonderfully. I'm reminded in a way of the play The Audience which was the predecessor to The Crown . In the play, we see a series of moments in history when Queen Elizabeth II is meeting with her prime ministers, giving a view of what was happening in life and politics at that point in time. Here, Chown takes us to visit various breakthroughs over the last 100 or so years when a step was made in the understanding of black holes.  The first few are around the ba

The Atomic Human - Neil Lawrence ****

This is a real curate’s egg of a book. Let’s start with the title - it feels totally wrong for what the book’s about. ‘The Atomic Human’ conjures up some second rate superhero. What Neil Lawrence is getting at is the way atoms were originally conceived as what you get when you pare back more and more until what’s left is uncuttable. The idea is that this reflects the way that artificial intelligence has cut into what’s special about being human - but there is still that core left. I think a much better analogy would have been the god of the gaps - the idea that science has taken over lots of what was once attributed to deities, leaving just a collection of gaps. At the heart of the book is an excellent point: how we as humans have great processing power in our brains but very limited bandwidth with which to communicate. By comparison, AIs have a huge amount of bandwidth to absorb vast amounts of data from the internet but can’t manage our use of understanding and context. This distinct

Mapmatics - Paulina Rowińska ***

Popular mathematics can be hard to make engaging. Though some topics (such as infinity or zero) can be made interesting in isolation, usually it's best if it can be tied to something more concrete, and what Paulina Rowińska does here is to bring us the story of maps and the the maths behind them. Although Rowińska starts with Mercator and other early projections, it's not really a history of mapping - for example, there is no mention of Roger Bacon's description of using coordinates for mapping - instead the focus is the twin mathematical bases of mapping, geometry and trigonometry before moving onto other maths connections from fractals and operational research to Bayes' theorem. We start with the nature of a curved world and the compromises that need to be made to translate a 3D surface onto a sheet of paper - compromises that are rarely stated and make a huge difference to the look of the map. This is mostly very engaging, except when it spends too long on geometry a