Mize on Hodges, 'Alan Turing: The Enigma'

Andrew Hodges
Stephen Mize

Andrew Hodges. Alan Turing: The Enigma. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983; repr., 2014. 768 pp. $16.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-691-16472-4.

Reviewed by Stephen Mize Published on H-War (April, 2015) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

Andrew Hodges’s Alan Turing: The Enigma weaves a colorful fabric of individual biography, twentieth-century British scientific inquiry, arithmetic, and social history. He creates a narrative tapestry that illuminates the life of one of the most significant individual contributors to Allied victory in the Second World War. This reprint of the original 1983 publication contains a new preface by the author, noting Gordon Brown’s, the prime minister, 2009 statement of apology for Britain’s persecution of Alan Turing as a gay man. That apology was precipitated by the enormous popularity of an online petition. Significantly, Turing’s exculpation for a crimeless offense was set into motion through the utilization of a technology (the computer) that owes its existence, at least in part, to his towering intellect.

There are neither chronological nor developmental lacunae in Hodges’s account, with the author skillfully explaining Turing’s intellectual and emotional maturation from birth to death. Hodges begins his narrative with Turing’s familial roots in fourteenth-century Scotland, advancing quickly to his birth into an upper-middle-class family, and his rearing as a child of the Raj. Turing’s father decided that both his sons should remain in England, while he and his wife traveled to Madras to serve out his term in the India Civil Service. The elder Turing was concerned with his sons’ delicate constitutions, and their incompatibility with the subcontinent’s unforgiving climate.

We follow Turing through family holidays, his burgeoning intellectual curiosity, and the austerity and harsh realities of the English public school system. There Turing would meet his first and enduring love, Christopher, the memory of whom would influence Turing throughout his life. During his Cambridge and Princeton years, we examine Turing’s tackling of the seemingly insuperable Entscheidungsproblem, where he would formulate his “Turing machine,” defining the limits of machine computation. This helped scientists, mathematicians, and (much later) computer scientists comprehend the possibilities, both real and theoretical, of machine-based logic. This 1936 contribution would lay the foundation for the development of what we now know as “software.”

The world of Bletchley Park is examined with remarkably detailed explanations of not only the cryptanalytic process but also the complexity of Bletchley’s “bombes,” the pre-computer, electro-mechanical machines that crunched the millions of rotor-cipher variations the German Enigma machine was capable of producing. Though at times I felt, as a reader, that I had fallen through Alice’s Looking Glass (a literary touchstone to which Hodges makes numerous references), this is surely more to do with the limits of my own intellect at comprehending cryptography than any failing on the biographer’s part.

Hodges approaches the person of Alan Turing, as well as the science and mathematics that were so central to his war contributions, with palpable gusto and comprehensible interpretations for the lay reader of arcane, arithmetic puzzles: no small feat. Hodges explains both Turing and the code-breaking process as an architectural creation, with each brick or structural element building on, and supporting those that preceded it. Hence Alan the man and the work at Bletchley are presented to the reader less as blinding Damascene revelation than as deliberate, disciplined, and well-crafted intellectual process, underscoring the genius of both.

Finally, and tragically, we are presented with Turing’s end, and the blinkered philistinism that hastened it. Here again, Hodges carefully and touchingly reveals Turing’s emotional, intellectual, and moral depth and integrity, with his prose never once straying into the maudlin.

Hodges cleverly introduces each chapter of Alan Turing with an excerpt from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), thus suffusing the biography with a poetic beauty that complements and enhances the author’s engaging prose. The reader comes to know Turing as a witty, charming, physically passionate, complex, athletic, emotionally nuanced, and altogether captivating man at a singular remove from the stammering, semi-autistic cartoon figure portrayed in the film adaptation of this truly remarkable biography. How screenwriter Graham Moore arrived at the semi-socially functional boffin presented in the film The Imitation Game (2014) must remain a mystery, as it bears absolutely no resemblance in form or substance to the decidedly three-dimensional portrait Hodges brings to vision with a deft touch. However flawed, The Imitation Game must be credited for its role in reintroducing Hodges’s exceptional biography of an extraordinary man to an audience that would almost certainly be ignorant of its existence. For this alone, The Imitation Game, Moore, and all connected to the film’s creation should be applauded.

For any student of cryptography, computer science, World War II, LGBT history, or British social history of the twentieth century, Hodges’s biography is highly recommended. For anyone looking for a cracking good read, it is recommended without reservation.  

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Citation: Stephen Mize. Review of Hodges, Andrew, Alan Turing: The Enigma. H-War, H-Net Reviews. April, 2015. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=43076

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