Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"That wasn't the only madness he was up to.
"There was also, well... I don't even know how to... I mean, I was proud of him, but...
"Machines that think? How... distressing."
Hmm... she was very good at changing the subject, Alan's mum. Particularly when people were trying to pin her down on whether she knew about his sexuality. I read an extremely good book regarding the wartime goings-on at Bletchley Park and the various code-breakers many years ago, the name of which eludes me now, unfortunately. But understandably it contained a substantial section on Alan Turing, though primarily focused on his immense contribution to the war effort, so I was reasonably aware of him already from that respect.
This work covers not only that esteemed service to King and country which saw him awarded an O.B.E. immediately after the war in 1945, but also substantially bookends it, beginning with his childhood as a socially awkward mathematical prodigy, his subsequent prodigious academic achievements at Cambridge and Princeton, and his burgeoning reputation as a leading thinker of his time. Post-war it covers his remarkable grounding-breaking work in the design of possible 'stored-program' computers and his still applied Turing Test which has become an indispensable concept in the debate surrounding artificial intelligence.
Then comes his devastating fall from grace due to his arrest for gross indecency in 1952, homosexual acts between men being a criminal offence in UK at the time, a law that was not changed, albeit then even partially, for over another decade. Offered hormone treatment as an alternative to imprisonment (in effect chemical castration), the immensely detrimental effects on his mind and body tragically led to his death within two years.
Whether it was suicide or not remains the subject of some debate, though it seems inconceivable to me given the circumstances of his demise that Turing did not choose to end his suffering. (Which is handled very well here, actually, and something Ottaviani talks about in his afterword.) That such a visionary, on the cusp of further amazing discoveries and progress, could be brought down in such a devastating and discriminatory fashion is a salutary reminder it really isn't that long ago that times were very different and much less enlightened indeed.
This is an extremely detailed and thorough graphic biography. I shouldn't be surprised, it coming from the same writer as FEYNMAN and PRIMATES: THE FEARLESS SCIENCE OF JANE GOODALL, DIAN FOSSEY & BIRUTE GALDIKAS. It works through both a direct presentation of the facts and also retrospective interview excerpts with family and colleagues, talking about Alan directly. What comes across very strongly is just what a remarkable man he was, held in the very highest esteem by those who understood his work, or him, just enough to see his brilliance, and through his shy, shuttering demeanour that could easily be misunderstood for aloofness.
It took me a little while to get into the art, I must say. Leland Purvis' style not being so easy on the eye as Ottaviani's collaborators on his other works, but once I had I didn't find it a distraction at all. Though I suspect that is in great part testament to the fascinating subject matter and the writing. There are some excellent conceits and artistic devices employed upon occasion that add a little something, though. I particularly enjoyed a theoretical discussion between Alan and two colleagues on the subject of building a machine (the term computer not yet being in use) constructed of an infinitely long strip of paper with someone marking marks on it to give this construct instructions. As the three walk through their imaginary discussion, alongside the paper, Alan gradually leaves his colleagues behind in their respective capacities to understand his ideas, and eventually is surprised to find himself standing alone, holding the paper, looking around to see where they have disappeared to, before shrugging his shoulders and carrying on, theorising to himself.
For anyone wanting to learn more about this great man, a true genius of the 20th century, who ought to be held in as high regard as the likes of Albert Einstein for his contributions to science, this is an excellent starting point. Most people aren't aware but there is actually an annual award, the A.M. Turing Award, which is given to an "individual selected for contributions of lasting and major technical importance in the field of computer science." This award is recognised as the highest possible distinction one can achieve in the field, and is regarded as being as prestigious as a Nobel Prize. So it's nice to know that at least his peers did find a way to recognise his brilliance for all posterity.