azdak: Face of Klimt's Music II (Default)
posted by [personal profile] azdak at 03:50pm on 14/04/2009 under
With impeccable timing, a parcel of books arrived for me today from, ahem amazon. However they included three books about Alan Turing (two biographies and a play), also Five Red Herrings, which is proven to have inspired sinful homosexual fantasies in a sub-set of its readers (although it's possible that in this particular set N=1). So take that, right-wing Christian zealots!

One of the Turing books is the definitive bio by Andrew Hodges. I must admit, I had suspected, after visiting Hodges' Turing home page, that he (Hodges) was a pathetic loser with a Turing obsession, but it turns out he is a Fellow of Mathematics at Wolfson College (Oxford)with a Turing obsession and not a loser at all. The book is extremely readable, in spite of being densely packed (540 pages of very small and crappy type, plus notes), and full of wonderful quotations and extracts from letters and diaries and school reports. There is something about knowing that Hodges is a mathematician that is very confidence-inspiring - I like knowing that the story is being told to me by one of the few people who can actually understand Turing's work (as opposed to people like me, who go "I say, that was jolly clever, I wonder how he did that?"). Of course, once we get onto actual maths, the density may prove off-putting, but so far I'm only on chapter 2 and he's barely arrived at King's.

Turing does seem to have a rotten time at school, at least in the lower forms, but since he ended up not wanting to leave because he was so happy there, it can't have been as bad as it seems. Or perhaps there's something about the natural progression into the sixth form, where those who (a) weren't expelled, and (b) survived got to lord it over the juniors and pay back all their suffering onto someone else, that explains why so many ex-public schoolboys go misty-eyed about their schooldays. Certainly my sympathy for Turing's sufferings as a prefect who wasn't very good at administering beatings was limited (he was clumsy, and kept slipping over, or breaking china with his stick); and I didn't feel that being reluctant to beat a boy whose spine had been damaged by previous beatings and dealing with it by passing him on to other prefects (who presumably had fewer scruples) was quite the shining example of moral excellence Hodges wanted me to see it as. The past, it is truly another country.

One of the letters Hodges cites was written to Turing's mother by his housekeeper, who found him after his death. The housekeeper appears to have stepped straight out of the pages of a Sayers novel:

My dear Mrs Turing,

You will by now have heard of the death of Mr Alan. It was such an awfull shock. I just didn't know what to do. So I flew across to Mrs Gibson's and she rang Police & they wouldn't let me touch or do a thing & I just couldn't remember your address. I had been away for the weekend and went up tonight as usual to get his meal. Saw his bedroom light on the lounge curtains not drawn back, milk on steps & paper in door. So I thought he'd gone out early & forgot to put his light off so I went and knocked at his bedroom door. Got no answer so walked in. Saw him in bed he must have died during the night[...]

You do know you have my very deepest sympathy in your great loss & what I can do to help at this end you know I will continue to do so.

Yours respectfully, S. Clayton

Arthur Eddington gets mentioned a lot - enough that I'm starting to think I might get the DVD of that TV thing with Tennant in it. I got the impression from my flist that it was rather too much emo-porn for my taste, but Eddington seems to have been such an interesting man that it's probably worth the risk. The other mathematician I now want to know more about, thanks to Hodges, is David Hilbert, who was not only the head of the mathematics department at Goettingen, at a time when it was the best in the world (even better than Cambridge - gasp!), and whose work dominated mathematics for decades, but who also said, as head of the German delegation to the International Mathematics Congress in 1928, "Mathematics knows no races... for mathematics, the whole cultural world is a single country."

Not that it did him much good, since (I have read elsewhere)the Nazis decimated his (strongly Jewish) department and it never recovered from the damage.


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