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Man Who Knew Too Much by David Leavitt

Man Who Knew Too Much (edition 2006)

by David Leavitt

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Title:Man Who Knew Too Much
Authors:David Leavitt
Info:WEIDENFELD & NICOLSO (2006), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 320 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:turing, computers, artificial intelligence, enigma machine, cryptography, mathematics

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The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer by David Leavitt



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I didn't know much about Turing as a person, or about much of his work beyond the most famous, so this was interesting from that perspective.

Two major complaints:

* The author kept making connections between Turing's homosexuality and his professional work. While those connections seem reasonable later in his career, and are very interesting and thought-provoking there, the ties to his earlier work are tenuous at best, and completely unsupported by the author.

* At the end of the book -- literally the last several pages -- the author drops the suggestion that the British government had Turing killed. Though it apparently gave the book its title, the speculation is again completely unsupported and speculative, and weakened the book. ( )
  sben | Feb 11, 2014 |
Turing was a fellow at King's College, Cambridge, in 1936, when he confronted what might be called the mathematician's nightmare: the possibility of blindly devoting your life to what, unbeknownst to anyone but God, is an unsolvable problem. If only there were a way to know beforehand, a procedure for sifting out and discarding the uncrackable nuts.

Turing's stroke of genius was to recast the issue - mathematicians call it the decision problem - in mechanical terms. A theorem and the instructions for proving it, he realized, could be thought of as input for a machine. If there was a solution, Turing's imaginary device would eventually come to a stop and print the answer. Otherwise it would grind away forever. Although it was not his primary intention, he had discovered, in passing, the idea of the programmable computer.
  Fred_Wilson | Sep 12, 2013 |
Excellent biography of Alan Turing with an emphasis on explaining his contributions to computing. Some details of the math to illustrate the key concepts. ( )
  ghefferon | Jan 1, 2013 |
Alan Turing was one of the most fascinating figures of 20th century history. His theoretical mathematical work that led to the invention of the computer, his key role in breaking the Nazis' Enigma code during WW II, and his acceptance of his own homosexuality at a time when most of society still considered it unnatural, all put him ahead of his time.

David Leavitt is a gay writer who writes both fiction and nonfiction. He has a narrative style which is easy to read. That is a definite asset in this book, since he addresses some mathematical concepts which might not be easy for everyone to understand.

Leavitt gives a great deal of attention to Turing's sexuality, and argues for two points in particular. One is not very controversial. He points out that other mathematicians who disagreed with Turing's theoretical views used an incorrect syllogism to dismiss those views: "Turing thinks that machines can think. Turing sleeps with men. Therefore, machines cannot think."

The other point Leavitt brings up is more controversial. He makes the case that Turing's homosexuality made him a better mathematical thinker. Basically, the argument is that Turing knew from his own experience that being gay was perfectly natural and that the majority of society was wrong on the issue; that made him a more original thinker in general, which led to his revolutionary ideas that laid the foundation for the invention of the computer. This idea was very intriguing to me, since I frequently hear a similar idea brought up in connection to gay artists and writers, but rarely in connection to gay mathematicians or scientists. ( )
  JJMcDermott | Sep 6, 2012 |
British mathematician Alan Turing laid many of the foundations of computer science. He also played a significant role in winning WWII with his work on breaking German codes, only to eventually be driven to suicide by the society he had helped to save, which proved incapable of tolerating his homosexuality. It's an important, fascinating story of genius, triumph and tragedy.... and this book, alas, does not do it justice. As a biography of Turing, it just feels lacking. In fact, the earliest sections are downright annoying, as Leavitt keeps going off on tangents, generally literary ones, that have very little to do with Turing. For a while, I felt as if I were reading an English term paper by someone making a desperate attempt to impress the teacher with his reading, not to mention his ability to find sexual subtext in everything up to and including abstract mathematics. It does sort of settle down after that, and portions of it were actually pretty interesting, but I still don't feel as if I've come away from it with much more of an understanding of Turing the person than I had when I started. I think that's largely because Leavitt tells us a lot about Turing -- or rather, about his ideas about Turing -- but shows us very little. And so much of what he has to say is speculation that seldom seems to be particularly well grounded. It's rather one-note speculation, too; Leavitt never does stop with that sexual subtext thing. It is at least rather more successful as an explanation of Turing's work, especially if you're interested in the gritty mathematical details. Although, really, I think it goes into quite a bit more gritty mathematical detail than most readers are likely to want or need.

In other words, this is yet another book with lots of interesting potential that turned out to be disappointing. I've been reading too many of those lately. It's made me grumpy, and inclined to rate this one lower than I otherwise might. ( )
1 vote bragan | Feb 25, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393052362, Hardcover)

The story of the persecuted genius who helped create the modern computer.

To solve one of the great mathematical problems of his day, Alan Turing proposed an imaginary programmable calculating machine. But the idea of actually producing a "Turing machine" did not crystallize until he and his brilliant Bletchley Park colleagues built devices to crack the Nazis' Enigma code, thus ensuring the Allies' victory in World War II. In so doing, Turing became a champion of artificial intelligence, formulating the famous (and still unbeaten) Turing Test that challenges our ideas of human consciousness. But Turing's postwar computer-building was cut short when, as an openly gay man in a time when homosexuality was officially illegal in England, he was apprehended by the authorities and sentenced to a "treatment" that amounted to chemical castration, leading to his suicide.

With a novelist's sensitivity, David Leavitt portrays Turing in all his humanity—his eccentricities, his brilliance, his fatal candor—while elegantly explaining his work and its implications.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:39:51 -0400)

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"One of the most important openings in the path to the modern computer was made by the British mathematician Alan Turing - remarkably, while he was solving an entirely different problem. Shy and insecure about his middle-class origins, considered eccentric by those who did not know him well, Turing could show those close to him sly humor and bracing candor - even about his homosexuality. He also had one of the keenest minds of the twentieth century." "Turing's famous 1936 doctoral dissertation tackled one of the great mathematical challenges of the time, the "decidability problem, " by proposing and imaginary programmable calculating machine. The idea of actually producing such a "Turing machine" did not crystallize until Turing and his brilliant Bletchley Park colleagues built devices to crack the Nazis' Enigma code, thus ensuring the Allies' victory in World War II. Along the way, Turing crossed paths with some of the greatest minds of his time, including John von Neumann and Ludwig Wittgenstein." "After the war, Turing became a champion of artificial intelligence, formulating the famous Turing Test that challenges our ideas of human consciousness. But Turing's postwar computer-building was cut short when he was arrested for violating antihomosexuality laws and sentenced to a "treatment" that amounted to chemical castration." "As he explains Turing's work and its implications, David Leavitt never loses sight of Turing's humanity, using a novelist's sensitivity to enter Turing's world and tell his extraordinary story."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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