Julia's Reviews > A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin
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's review
Mar 14, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: literature-fiction, non-fiction
Read in March, 2009

This is a strange and fascinating/disturbing book--a work of fiction, but based on the real life stories of the great mathematician, Kurt Godel, and the father of computers, Alan Turing. The author, Janna Levin, is an astrophysicist trained at Cornell--but the writing is that of a mystic. The narrator is never named, but I take him/her to be the persona of Levin, who shares both the genius and madness of the two brilliant, self-destructive men at the center of the work.

All three of them--the two men and the author--are searching for the meaning of life. Like most of us, they want The Answer--why are we here and what does life mean? Godel's "incompleteness theorems" said that not even mathematics is provable, while Turing solved the German Enigma code with his belief that we humans are basically machines. One of the most powerful sentences in the book says, about humans: "We are not much. We are confused and brilliant and stupid, lost clumps of living ash."

The book is a powerful example of the dangerous line between genius and insanity--and it's a very thin line. Godel was a close friend of Einstein, who had died in 1955, but Godel died in 1978, literally starving to death from paranoia about being poisoned. Turing was a homosexual who was discovered in 1952 when the condition was considered illegal in England. He had the choice of prison or chemical castration and chose the latter, but the effects were so devastating that he took his own life in 1954, eating a cyanide-laced apple ("Snow White" had been one of his favorite stories).

Levin gives her own point of view so poignantly and powerfully when she says: "We are all caught in the stream of complicated legacy--a proof of the limits of human reason, a proof of our boundlessness. A declaration that we were down here on this crowded, lonely planet, a declaration that we mattered, we living clumps of ash, that each of us was once somebody, that we strove for what we could never have, that we could admit as much. That was us--funny and lousy and great all at once."

She CARES so much--about Godel, about Turing, about us. That's a rare quality, especially coming from a professor of physics and astronomy at Columbia. I wish she'd just left off the notes at the end--they're short and rather jumbled and not necessary. I'm just grateful to have experienced both the brilliance and brokenness of two unique men as seen through the words of someone with great compassion.

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Patty Your review was so interesting. I need to read the book.

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