Alan Turing: The Enigma.
This book was a challenge on a number of levels. First is its sheer length. At well over 700 pages, it is exhaustive but still left me with a sense of incompleteness about the subject. Then there is Hodge's approach to the subject. Billed as a scientific biography (and the scientific element is pervasive and comprehensive), it really focusses more on Turing's ideas than him as a person. The discussion of Turing the man often seems haphazard; major events and milestones of his life are discussed in a seemingly very offhand way. Further, more mundane references to early twentieth century British history and the social system without explanatory notes confuse a non-British reader. Taken together, these add up to a challenging but, in the end, worthwhile look at a man who Hodges rightly assesses as an enigma.
Many people will be familiar with Turing based on Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal in the movie The Imitation Game that focused more on the more human events of Turing's life. The book is vastly different. It is not a traditional biography; anyone looking for that will be disappointed. It traces ideas and their development at the expense of learning about Turing the man. Hodges points out there is relatively little primary-source material to draw from; but his method of discussing events, relationships, and Turing's nonintellectual development--while not random--is often hard to follow. He rarely goes into detail on personal events, and it leaves one with the aforementioned sense of incompleteness.
Turing has been acknowledged as one of the key players in the Allies' success in breaking the German Enigma code. The back cover states, "It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Turing saved the Allies." However, anyone looking for the definitive story of the cracking of the German Enigma codes would do better to look elsewhere. The narrative discusses his work on this project at length but in such a way that there is no sense of his centrality to the effort.
Hodges is at his best explaining and discussing ideas. He is a scientist but also a gifted writer who takes complex ideas and presents them in a way understandable to the less scientifically oriented. He has tremendous sympathy for his subject, but this never interferes with his discussions of Turing's ideas and their impact. Turing's contributions extended from the purely academic early in his career to his much more application-oriented work through the war and beyond. Probably the most interesting part of the book was the discussion of the development of the modem computer. As with most things in his life, Turing was instrumental in many aspects of computer development (early computers were often referred to as Turing machines); but, by the time it began to have practical use, he had become bored and moved on to new projects.
The book was first published in 1983 when information about Ultra and the Enigma codebreaking was still becoming public knowledge, and sources on Turing and his work were not extensive. In the update, Hodges chose to address issues of fact and interpretation in the preface rather than revising the text. The information was helpful but should have been included as an afterword. Without the book's foundation to draw from much of the updated information had no context. I had to reread the preface after finishing the book.
This is a difficult read. The size, scientific subject matter, organization, and cultural idiosyncrasies might discourage someone from tackling it. That would be a mistake. It demands your full attention and will not answer all your questions, but in the end it is worth the effort.
Lt. Col. Golda Eldridge, USAF (Ret.), EdD.
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|Publication:||Air Power History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2015|
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