A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines

Branches over Dow\'s Lake, Ottawa

Janna Levin’s book is an odd one: written about two mathematicians, focused on mathematical ideas, but with virtually no specific mathematical discussion. The book dances elegantly around the real meat of the lives of Alan Turing and Kurt Godel, but shows it all from the perspective of an outsider focused on emotions. This is freely admitted in the concluding notes:

The depth and magnitude of both Turing and Godel’s ideas are only barely touched upon here.

While this is a novel and not a reference work, one nonetheless feels that Godel and Turing would think it captures mostly what was not essential about their lives.

Putting words and thoughts into fictitious forms of historical figures is always a dangerous business, because it carries with it the false precision of reasoned invention. The danger that the speculation could be wrong is constant, so the book takes on the feeling of a friend-of-a-friend story, while maintaining the trappings of an omniscient direct account. The book also fixates far too much on apples, in an attempt to set up the story of Turing’s suicide.

The book’s strength lies in conveying the tragedy and isolation that seems to be the burden of most of the greatest mathematicians. The contrast between being able to perform mental feats beyond the capacity of almost everyone, while being largely unable to perform the basic actions of a normal life, has long been rich material for writers. In this sense, Turing comes off much stronger; by the end, the account of Godel’s life is both pathetic and pitiable. At least Turing is driven to suicide by the homophobic cruelty of others – Godel just stumbles into it through deepening paranoia.

While the book made for satisfying reading, I much prefer the math-related non-fiction works of Simon Singh. His Code Book includes an admirable description of the breaking of Enigma. In Fermat’s Last Theorem Singh also does a good job of telling about the lives of mathematicians, without ignoring the math. Something comparable on Godel’s incompleteness theorem would make more satisfying reading than this novel.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

4 thoughts on “A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines

  1. Sadly, our present system of mathematics education is precisely this kind of nightmare. In fact, if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done— I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soulcrushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.

    Everyone knows that something is wrong. The politicians say, “we need higher standards.” The schools say, “we need more money and equipment.” Educators say one thing, and teachers say another. They are all wrong. The only people who understand what is going on are the ones most often blamed and least often heard: the students. They say, “math class is stupid and boring,” and they are right.”

    A Mathematician’s Lament, written by Paul Lockhart in 2002

  2. Feynmanium: What are the chemical consequences of having an element, with an atomic number above 137, whose 1s electrons must travel faster than the speed of light? Is “Feynmanium” the last chemical element that can physically exist? The problem actually occurs at Element 139 (eka-actinium/dvi-lanthanum), since complete analysis involving relativity gives a smaller result for the velocity of the 1s electrons, therefore allowing stable 1s orbits in the element 138 (Uto).

  3. Today would have been the 96th birthday of cryptologist, mathematician and father of almost everything digital Alan Turing. That he was persecuted for his homosexuality to the point of suicide is a crime and a tragedy.

    Remember today the man who, more than Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, is the reason you are now sitting at a computer, reading this very sentence.

    23 June, 1912 – 7 June, 1954

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