Book review: ‘The Turing Guide’, Alan Turing's life and work

A comprehensive overview of Alan Turing’s life works well by incorporating insight from a number of different specialist authors.

The centenary of Alan Turing’s birth in 2012 saw the arrival of a spate of books on the computing pioneer whose wartime codebreaking achievements and controversial personal life provided authors with a rich source of raw material.

The difficulty with telling that story, though, as both writers and filmmakers have found, is that it’s hard to maintain the drive of the personal narrative without occasional digressions to explain technology that’s hard to digest even for those with a solid background in mathematics.

Explaining why Turing is such a significant figure not just in 20th-century technology but in the history of science and mathematics requires the sort of exposition that disrupts the engaging story of an eccentric schoolboy who grew up to play a key role in the outcome of the Second World War before helping to establish artificial intelligence as a discipline, then dying at a tragically young age.

With ‘The Turing Guide’ (Oxford University Press, £19.99, ISBN 9780198747833), a thick and extensively illustrated new take on combining these different elements, Oxford University Press has struck the right formula. Breaking the story into several sections allows readers to cherry-pick the bits that are of interest to them, either running through from start to finish or sticking to the biographical chapters and using the pointers to sections which go into more technical depth as they wish.

Drawing from several contributors, including experts on Turing’s life, former friends and colleagues and at least one family member, makes for a varied but comprehensive review that’s written for a general audience but still goes into enough depth where necessary for the scientist or engineer who wants to know more.

There is at least a rough chronological structure, with the first of eight sections providing an excellent introductory biography. It’s followed by chapters focusing on the most significant periods – Turing’s pioneering ‘universal computing machine’ and codebreaking work at Bletchley Park, then his post-war work on computing and artificial intelligence, morphogenesis and breakthroughs in pure and applied mathematics.

It’s testament to the often unacknowledged breadth of Turing’s achievements in a relatively short working life that the wartime codebreaking work for which he’s now best known is just one section.

The current enthusiasm for counterfactual history - with films and TV series dramatising what the world might have been like if there had been a different outcome to the Second World War - helps to underline the significance of the clandestine work done at Bletchley Park.

Turing biographer Jack Copeland posits an interesting theory: what if Turing and his colleagues hadn’t broken the Enigma code? The likely scenario is that the war in the North Atlantic would have slowed the build-up to the Normandy invasion by as much as a year, giving Hitler the opportunity to establish defences along the coast and right across Europe.

On the strength of ‘The Turing Guide’ it’s hard to argue with Copeland’s suggestion that “Turing, the digital warrior, stands alongside Churchill, Eisenhower and a short list of other wartime principals as a leading figure in the Allied victory. There should be a statue of him in London among Britain’s other war heroes.”

Other books about Alan Turing

‘The Turing Guide’ is a great introduction to the many and varied facets of Turing’s life. For readers who want to hone in on particular aspects, there’s no shortage of recent titles to choose from.

A unique personal take is ‘Prof: Alan Turing Decoded’ (The History Press, £9.99, ISBN 978 1 84165 660 1). E&T interviewed the author, Sir Dermot Turing, who is Alan Turing’s nephew, about how he has dissected some of the myths that have grown around up around a man who is still difficult to decipher by bringing his own insights drawn from family sources, interviews with Alan Turing’s contemporaries and other materials not available to previous researchers. These include documents only released by GCHQ in recent years, letters that came to light in 2014, a notebook rediscovered in 2015, and Alan Turing’s brother’s archive of papers from 1954.

For those interested in learning more about how Turing’s work on artificial intelligence is still relevant today, ‘Turing's Imitation Game: Conversations with the Unknown’ (Cambridge University Press, £24.99, ISBN 9781107056381) provides an up-to-date assessment of progress on the eponymous test, in which an interrogator converses with hidden entities and tries to determine whether they are human or machine. As well as numerous transcripts of 'conversations' between people and the programs designed to emulate them, authors Kevin Warwick and Huma Shah introduce the subject of artificial intelligence in a straightforward way that requires no mathematical bakcground and lets readers try the test themselves.

As with so much drama based on the lives of scientists and engineers, stage and screen stories based on Turing’s work tend to go easy on the technical side of things. In 1936, when he was just 24, Turing wrote a remarkable paper in which he outlined the theory of computation, laying out the ideas that underlie all modern computers. ‘On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem’ looks at how humans perform computation, breaking the process down into a sequence of steps before constructing theoretical machines capable of performing each step. In 'Turing's Vision: The Birth of Computer Science' (The MIT Press, £18.95, ISBN 9780262034548). Chris Bernhardt, who is professor of mathematics at Fairfield University in the USA, explains the theory for the general reader, putting it into the context of mathematical history, other views of computation, Turing's later work, and the birth of the modern computer.

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