Anand Gopal's Reviews > The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer

The Man Who Knew Too Much by David Leavitt
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's review
Aug 14, 08

bookshelves: mathematics

Leavitt turns the life of Alan Turing, one of the Twenty Century's foremost mathematicians and the conceptual forefather of the computer, into a riveting and satisfying read. Turing was openly gay in pre-war Britain, when homosexuality was still very much under illegal. Leavitt charts the mathematician's life through his discovery of the universal machine, his work as a code breaker during the war, and his later forays into theories of artificial intelligence. The tale culminates in a startling denouement, where Turing hires a male prostitute, gets caught and suffers forced estrogen injections by the hand of the British government. Turing, unable to take the torment, bites into a cyanide-laced apple, apparently as an invocation to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Juicy details aside, Leavitt performs wonderfully in picking apart Turing's seminal paper, "On Computable Numbers, With an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem" which introduces the concept of a universal machine. Leavitt thankfully doesn't skim on the scientific details, devoting a whole chapter to the paper. Turing's later work doesn't get the same thorough treatment, however.

The book oversteps its bounds only when Leavitt, a novelist by profession, imagines psychosexual motivations for some of Turings ideas.

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