Saturday, September 1, 2012

Book seven: A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin.

I first learned about troubled mathematician Alan Turing from a RadioLab Shorts podcast.  I knew nothing about the man who basically invented binary code and was instrumental in helping defeat Germany in WWII by developing a machine that broke the German code.  Turing was also gay.  In fact, he was convicted of homosexuality in 1952 and rather than go to prison, he chose treatment with female hormones (chemical castration).  That situation left him less than happy and in 1954 he committed suicide just before his 42nd birthday.

The RadioLab Shorts program was a fantastic look at the genius of Turing and it recommended A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines as a fictionalized look at the mathematician's life.  The novel written by Janna Levin (a mathematician herself) brings together the theories and ideas of Turing and Kurt Godel, a mathematician/logician/philosopher and contemporary of Turing.  While the two never physically met, their ideas seem to play well against each other.  I say seem because I’m definitely not smart enough to read this book with any real understanding of the mathematical principles discussed.  From incompleteness theorems to mechanical decision theories to whatever the hell Wittgenstein was philosophically worried about, this book was sometimes a complicated read. While Levin doesn’t overindulge in the mathematics, it was still enough to confound a novice like me.

The narrator of the book delivers the story in a dreamy, almost surreal style that sometimes feels overwritten.  In fact the language often gets in the way of the story leaving the reader unsure of what he or she just consumed.  And even the story, while somewhat dark, has a fanciful attitude that was confusing.  While the book is far from awful, it had lengthy passages that were tedious.  For my money, if you’re looking to find out more about a very interesting historical figure, I’d download the Radio Lab Shorts episode, The Turing Problem

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