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alan turing, the engima, andrew hodges

i don't ever remember having a hero as a child. reading this biography i wondered whether turing would have been a suitable canidate. but a hero should be good at everything and turing never got to grips with life as a social animal.

i suspect hodges feels the same way. while turing's honesty is admirable, this book ends by suggesting that he could have been happier - and lived longer - if he had been better able to understand his social environment and so reach some kind of personal compromise. but turing was no arrogant steppenwolf; he was a brilliant thinker, a decent man, and a victim of a sick society.

hodges's book has two great strengths:

i found this second thread particularly revealing - i was not aware of the extent to which gays were persecuted in the recent history of my own country (on the other hand, it was only a week or two ago that i discovered how edward ii died - or am i wrong in thinking an openly gay king was killed by being buggered with red hot irons? - so it's not just my modern history that's missing a few details).

gay liberation still has a long way to go before it has an open, recognised cultural narrative (compare my lack of knowledge with the arguments for feminism that, as an educated liberal, i can recite without thinking). this book helps advance a more inclusive culture while treating turing's sexuality as simply one facet of a complex personality.

(i can imagine that my concentration on this facet will put some people off. first, don't let my preoccupations mislead you - as i said, the book is carefully balanced. second, i just heard a radio 4 listener complain that there is too much emphasis on sexuality these days - he cannot go out with a male friend without being concerned that others might think him gay. if you are coming from that direction, perhaps you might consider why you don't worry about being thought a nigger lover when you are with a black person...)

but let's return to hodges's book. it also has some weaknesses: at times the commentary can become rambling; the use of an early popular science book as a unifying motif becomes tedious; discussions seem to be repeated (surely it could be shorter?).

yet, despite these criticisms, this is an excellent book. i think this is because the two main threads outlined above - science and society - are both still extremely relevant.

three examples:

one way of measuring the quality of our society is by asking how happy alan turing would be as a member of our generation - i think we still have a long way to go.