The best books to widen your picture of Alan Turing’s world

Andrew Hodges Author Of Alan Turing: The Enigma
By Andrew Hodges

Who am I?

I am a mathematician, based at Oxford University, following up the ideas of the Nobel prizewinner Roger Penrose on fundamental physics.  But I am best known for writing a biography of Alan Turing, the founder of computer science. I did this at a time when he was almost unknown to the public, long before computers invaded popular culture. And it meant giving a serious account of two kinds of secret history: the codebreaking of the Second World War and the life of an unapologetic gay man. Since then I have also created a supporting website. When I was drawn to find out about Alan Turing, it was not only because he was a mathematician. I seized the chance to bring together many themes from science, history, and human life. This broad approach is reflected in my recommendations. I am choosing books that hint at the great scope of themes related to Turing’s life and work.

I wrote...

Alan Turing: The Enigma

By Andrew Hodges,

Book cover of Alan Turing: The Enigma

What is my book about?

Capturing both the inner and outer drama of Turing’s life, Andrew Hodges tells how Turing’s revolutionary idea of 1936--the concept of a universal machine--laid the foundation for the modern computer and how Turing brought the idea to practical realization in 1945 with his electronic design. The book also tells how this work was directly related to Turing’s leading role in breaking the German Enigma ciphers during World War II, a scientific triumph that was critical to Allied victory in the Atlantic. At the same time, this is the tragic account of a man who, despite his wartime service, was eventually arrested, stripped of his security clearance, and forced to undergo a humiliating treatment program--all for trying to live honestly in a society that defined homosexuality as a crime.

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The books I picked & why

Alan Turing's Manchester

By Jonathan Swinton,

Book cover of Alan Turing's Manchester

Why did I love this book?

My first pick is the one most directly about Alan Turing himself. After 1950 his attention turned mainly to his new theory of mathematical biology, but his death in 1954 left most of this work unpublished.  His ideas were 20 or more years ahead of their time and few people could assess them. Jonathan Swinton is a leading expert in this field, and has been studying Turing’s manuscripts for 30 years. But his book has a much broader range: he adds so much on the culture of Manchester and its region, with a particular focus on women both as protagonists and observers. He has also illustrated his story with a wealth of pictures.

By Jonathan Swinton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Alan Turing's Manchester as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Manchester is proud of Alan Turing but does it deserve to be? Dr Jonathan Swinton explores the complexity of the city that Alan Turing encountered in 1948. He goes well beyond Turing as a mathematician, to cover wire-women, Wittgenstein and the daisy. This is a richly illustrated account of lives lived - and one life ended tragically early - in a post-war Manchester busy creating the computer. This is a book about the people one might have met in Turing s Manchester. It records the patronage of older men, triumphant from the successful prosecution of a scientific war, who could…

Book cover of Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness

Why did I love this book?

My second choice relates more subtly to Turing’s sudden end in 1954. In 1955, Turing’s colleague Max Newman gave a talk on logic in his honour. This greatly impressed a student, Roger Penrose, who was also studying the quantum mechanics and relativity that had first fascinated the young Turing. Years later, Penrose announced an astonishing thesis relating logic and physics. This book explains the theory he developed. It claims that the brain must exploit quantum-mechanical physics that no computer can emulate. Turing famously promoted the prospects for computer-based Artificial Intelligence, but he would have taken this anti-AI thesis more seriously than any other argument: it takes up his own interests and develops his own kind of thinking. 

Penrose’s books are not about science, they are actually doing scientific thinking. His humour and wonderful pictures enhance the direct personal engagement. The theory is highly controversial but has set a remarkable twenty-first-century agenda, inspiring new experiments to push at the boundaries in many fields.

By Roger Penrose,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shadows of the Mind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The motivation for this book arose, in part, from a need for detailed replies to a number of queries and criticisms from readers of the author's previous book, The Emperor's New Mind , many of whom have gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid the conclusion that there must be something non-computational involved in thinking. Penrose searches for a means, within the constraints of the hard facts of science, whereby a scientifically describable brain might be able to perform the needed non-computational actions. He develops the argument of how quantum effects might have a fundamental relevance to consciousness and to non-computable…

Book cover of Inside The Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Why did I love this book?

Ray Monk has, like me, been drawn to the idea of a linear biographical narrative fusing life and work together. My third pick is his biography of the American physicist Robert Oppenheimer. This is a fascinating story parallel to Turing’s. The Second World War brought both of them, hitherto pure researchers, to intense and crucial involvement in the world’s affairs. Nuclear weapons for Oppenheimer were what codebreaking was for Turing. Afterward, both were at odds with the governments they had empowered.

When in 1953 Turing wrote ‘I detest America’ he might well have been reacting to the McCarthy period in which Oppenheimer was attacked. But Ray Monk treats Oppenheimer’s pure scientific work as seriously as the political story. Oppenheimer’s 1939 paper on black holes was the background to Penrose’s 1965 paper cited in the Nobel physics prize of 2020. These dates illustrate the deep and decades-spanning connections that are involved in fundamental scientific advances.

By Ray Monk,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Inside The Centre as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

J. Robert Oppenheimer is among the most contentious and important figures of the twentieth century. As head of the Los Alamos Laboratory, he oversaw the successful effort to beat the Nazis to develop the first atomic bomb - a breakthrough which was to have eternal ramifications for mankind, and made Oppenheimer the 'father of the Bomb'.

But his was not a simple story of assimilation, scientific success and world fame. A complicated and fragile personality, the implications of the discoveries at Los Alamos were to weigh heavily upon him. Having formed suspicious connections in the 1930s, in the wake of…

Book cover of Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes

Why did I love this book?

My fourth pick is another biography, of the economist John Maynard Keynes. Richard Davenport-Hines has divided up his account into ‘seven lives’. Yet by taking his personal life and sexual identity seriously, Davenport-Hines achieves an outstanding unification. Seriousness is not solemnity: readers will find here a delightful story about Keynes admiring Alan Turing’s fingernails at King’s College, Cambridge. There is much more to illustrate the extraordinary King’s College ambiance in which Turing found his home, and deeper connections: in late 1946, both were crossing the Atlantic, Keynes to rescue the British economy, Turing on his start-up of the computer industry. Keynesian economics are newly relevant now, but the liberal élite culture in which it was hatched may still surprise readers. When Turing started war work at Bletchley Park, he wrote to Keynes’s circle that Dillwyn Knox was ‘his boss’. Did he know, as Richard Davenport-Hines explains, that Knox had been Keynes’s first lover? He would have relished the revelation with glee.

By Richard Davenport-Hines,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Universal Man as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the bestselling and award-winning author of 'An English Affair', a dazzlingly original thematic biography which throws fresh light on the greatest economist of the twentieth century.

John Maynard Keynes is the man who saved Britain from financial crisis not once but twice - over the course of two World Wars. He remains a highly influential figure, nearly 70 years after his death. But who was he?

In this entertaining biography, Richard Davenport-Hines gives us the man behind the economics: the connoisseur, intellectual, public official and statesman who was equally at ease socialising with the Bloomsbury Group as he was…

Book cover of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Why did I love this book?

My last pick is another critique of Artificial Intelligence, a forceful and well-documented account of what happens when algorithms are embodied in the real human world, with inputs and outputs inseparable from social constructs and political imperatives. In my view, this question was latent in Turing’s formulation of the concept of ‘intelligence’, and it is not going to go away. It was there in 1940, when Turing’s brilliant algorithms made British codebreaking possible: they depended for success on the human cultural background. It was a miracle that codebreaking was just possible with 1940s digital technology: mathematics and physics really did matter. Mathematics and physics have now made possible almost incredible feats of data manipulation: where it will lead is a question for everyone.

By Cathy O’Neil,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Weapons of Math Destruction as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A manual for the 21st-century citizen... accessible, refreshingly critical, relevant and urgent' - Financial Times

'Fascinating and deeply disturbing' - Yuval Noah Harari, Guardian Books of the Year

In this New York Times bestseller, Cathy O'Neil, one of the first champions of algorithmic accountability, sounds an alarm on the mathematical models that pervade modern life -- and threaten to rip apart our social fabric.

We live in the age of the algorithm. Increasingly, the decisions that affect our lives - where we go to school, whether we get a loan, how much we pay for insurance - are being made…

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