by David Boyle
Reviewed by Nick Sidwell
David Boyle’s biography “Alan Turing: Unlocking the Enigma,” manages to simultaneously display the advantages and disadvantages of tackling a huge subject in the short space offered by a Kindle Single.
Boyle’s exploration of Turing’s sprawling life is no small achievement. It feels instinctively like a story of this size and complexity shouldn’t fit into the shortened word count of a Kindle Single – but “Unlocking the Enigma” is a thoughtful and insightful treatment of the famed British mathematician Alan Turing. In a way, it’s a little like Boyle has attempted to squeeze an elephant into a dog kennel. On the face of it, it shouldn’t fit. Yet, for the most part, he is highly successful.
Turing is revered these days as a founding father of the modern computer, of artificial intelligence and for the work he did on both sides of the Atlantic helping to crack the Nazi’s Enigma code during World War II. Today, the famed Turing Test is named for him – the attempt to create a computer that can convincingly pass as human; can “think” (although as Boyle adeptly demonstrates, “think” is a problematic word). He was a strange fellow, as brilliant scientists are want to be. This brought some disagreements with authority and a curiously wandering career path. But it was his homosexuality that brought about his undoing, the oppressive, vindictive laws of the time seeing him hauled before the courts and prescribed a course of estrogen treatment. He committed suicide at the age of 41.
All these details are well known, but David Boyle not only captures them but also offers his own interpretations upon some key events as well as giving some interesting attention to Turing’s conversations with the philosopher LudwigWittgenstein and the different schools of philosophy they came from.
But for all the careful selection and editing of a life, the weaknesses of “Unlocking the Enigma” are caught up in the fact that Turing’s full life cannot be telescoped into the Kindle Single format. Without resorting to an exhaustive list of examples, this is a biography with corners cut, parts excised, nuances overridden and paths left unexplored. How could it be anything else? In opting to tackle Turing’s whole life rather than just a segment of it, “Unlocking the Enigma” has set itself an impossible task. That it achieves so much so effectively is entirely to its credit. But on closer examination, it is obvious that the elephant has been chopped up and the important parts artfully arranged to make it look like it is in the kennel, while the bulk of the body actually lies elsewhere in much longer books, much larger enclosures.
If you don’t have time to read one of those longer books: read “Unlocking the Enigma.” If you want to remind yourself of who Turing was before tackling a longer work: read “Unlocking the Enigma.” If you simply want to discover who this often misunderstood man was: read “Unlocking the Enigma.” You will not regret a minute spent in its company. It’s just that if you truly want to learn about Alan Turing, just don’t expect it to be the only book you read on him.
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Nick Sidwell is the editor of the Guardian Shorts series of short-form, non-fiction e-books, published by the Guardian newspaper. You can see the books at www.guardianshorts.com.