Sun. Mar 29th, 2020

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The Man Was More Than An Enigma

3 min read

Alan Turing: Unlocking the Enigma by David Boyle (2014) is a non-fiction account of a man who solved puzzles. In this case, the puzzle had a name, Enigma. Germany had developed a system of codes during WWII that gave them an advantage over the allies in blocking shipping lanes to reduce what might become allied logistical superiority. In this Kindle Single of 112 pages, I discovered many things that were new to me about both the man and about breaking the code of Enigma.

I became interested in the man and his breakthrough after watching the film “The Imitation Game.” I may go back and watch the film again because it seems to me that there are things revealed in this book that are not consistent with what I saw in the film. There is a much lengthier treatment of Alan Turing in Alan Turing: The Enigma: The Book That Inspired the Film “The Imitation Game” by Andrew Hodges (2014). At 762 pages I am sure it went into aspects of Turing’s life and work in greater detail. However, even this much shorter work went into scientific, ideological, and philosophical underpinnings of Turing’s work and life that fully satisfied my curiosity as to why there has been so much recent interest in his work.

The breaking of the Enigma code was vital for the protection of ships from German submarines. As an island nation, resupply of Britain by sea was vital and the German submarine warfare successes were costing Britain a lot in money and material losses. But the Enigma code was not a single code. Poland had been reading messages encoded by the Enigma system from the beginning of WWII and they had given the British a machine. But the Enigma machine used by the German Navy had modifications. There were more rotors and a type of reflective device that increased the number of variables the British code breakers had to consider. This breaking of the Enigma code is what Turing is associated with in the popular mind.

But this is an account of Turing, not simply Enigma. In the present day cultural focus, more attention may be paid to Turing for his homosexuality. It is not that he was open about it but, except for his mother, he was also not reticent about it. With his academic colleagues, such as long-time supporter and early tutor Newman, Turing’s lifestyle was acknowledged as simply another alternative lifestyle Turing chose. But this was not a lifestyle tolerated under British law where homosexuality was criminalized. Turing was charged and convicted of a crime, subjected to chemical castration, and, according to several sources, committed suicide at the age of 41.

During his life, Turing wanted to realize the theoretical in practical application through what we call artificial intelligence (AI). He developed a test, the Turing Test, and believed that if machines could pass the test it would indicate that machines could learn even to the point of expressing kindness. The test involved “blind” interaction between man and machine. The idea was that if a human could be convinced that he/she was interacting with another human rather than a machine, indications that machines could learn would be confirmed. Turing borrowed from the fields of engineering, mathematics, philosophy, and even biology (among others) to further his attempts at proof.

Readers of this book might be spurred to read some of the referenced, more lengthy works to find out greater detail about all the fields of knowledge Turing investigated. Other readers might want to know more about cultural acceptance of alternative lifestyles in the immediate post-WWII era by looking closer at Turing’s life and death. For me, this Kindle Single satisfied my curiosity.


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