I love listening to audiobooks. They go everywhere with me: while I knit, down the gym, in the car, on the train to work…
For the last month I have been listening to Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, read by Gordon Griffin.
It was given to me by a friend who knows and loves my fascination with brilliant concepts, and the people whose minds are brilliant enough to think of them.
Alan Turing is probably most famous for his work at Bletchley Park, breaking the Enigma Code during the Second World War. You may also have heard of the Turing Test, the criteria for assessing artificial intelligence.
It turns out that Alan Turing was instrumental to the development of computers from mechanical single function items, into universal electronic devices that can be programmed do perform any function. He defined the development of research in the field.
World-changing accomplishments aside, there is a story of a man, bigger than that of his professional successes.
This book is a detailed biography, starting with a brief history of Turing’s grandparents and parents, before introducing you to a young boy, son of a civil servant of British India, who never really lived anywhere for the first years of his life, and mostly grew up in the guardianship of people other than his parents. Perhaps this contributed to what made him a little strange, a little different, in a way that only became particularly apparent when his parents sent him to boarding school.
In 30 and a half hours, his relationship with himself and everyone around him is meticulously examined. At times the narration feels detached, making it hard to feel sentimentality, but this also seems to fit to some degree with the character of the person being analysed.
Turing’s famous achievements are described, but without being laboured over. More detail is given to his way of thinking, his development of ideas, and his relationship with the people he worked with. Good detail is given to the achievements which you won’t have heard of too. Great detail is given to describing the environment of private boarding school life, and that of the academic circles of Cambridge University, and their contrast with more everyday environments.
His romantic life is scrutinised. It seems as though everyone he allowed himself to be vulnerable with let him down somehow. The only person he appears to have ever truly loved, never knew how he felt, and died before Turing ever plucked up the courage to share his feelings.
I came away wondering: is it the brilliance of a person that makes them strange, or is their strangeness the key to their brilliance?
A reaction in three words:
Unsettling – Intriguing – Saddening