Reviews: the Imitation Game explores the life of the astonishing Alan Turing

The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded,

Jim Ottaviani, Leland Purvis,

Abrams Comicarts

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I’ve long been fascinated with the life and work of Alan Turing, the remarkable British mathematician and boffin (and if anyone deserves the affectionate old British label “boffin”, surely it’s Turing), the ideas, far ahead of his time and the technology available to him, spilling out of that unusual mind like a brilliant river of thought that most of us would struggle to stay afloat in, let alone navigate that river. Ideas which changed the world, although for many long decades some of that astonishing work would be concealed under the Official Secrets Act, wartime work not to be discussed. And it wasn’t; from the eccentric academics with their erratic, lateral-thinking brains tackling seemingly impossible problems to the legions of women who sweated over the operations at Bletchley Park, they kept their mouths closed. Some, like Turing, would go to their graves long before the nature of their work was revealed, the role it played in saving the nation – and arguably the free world – from the dark tyranny of the Nazi onslaught.

And as if helping save the world was not enough, also using those desperate times to push the envelope, advancing ideas and new technologies which would otherwise have taken years or decades more, birthing the proper digital programmable computer (in hastily erected sheds in wartime Britain of all places). Birthing the technological creations which would take us from the Industrial Age into the Information Age, a revolution we’re all mostly still running to catch up with, an idea which, like Gutenberg’s movable type printing press before it was an idea which would branch off into so many other areas, influencing every aspect of our lives, from everyday things like train travel or making a phone call to the exotic, like launching satellites or creating new ways of peering into our bodies to create new treatments. And some of those first ideas come from a young, eccentric and awkward, but brilliant, lad, ideas which may have remained only theories and academic papers and perhaps the odd bit of mechanical or electronic tinkering, if the budget allowed, until the war came.

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Ottaviani (who previously brought us a wonderful biography on the great Feynman) and Purvis break this look at Turing’s life and mind into three main parts, starting with his youth – school and college days, home life – then answering the call of duty during the dark days of the Second World War for secret work at the (now rightly famous) Bletchley Park, the desperate, frantic attempts to find ways into the supposedly unbreakable Enigma codes, and then his post-war life, able to show his OBE for services to “king and country” but not to ever tell what that remarkable work actually was. And of course, for those of us already familiar with Turing (I’ve admired him since I sat programming my first home computers, way back in the days when you had to learn programming to make them do anything, long, long before apps and swipes) that last act is a tragic one (potential spoiler alert for those not familiar with that history).

It would have been very easy to focus entirely on those Bletchley Park years, and indeed the material from that period would easily have filled the book. But to Ottaviani Purvis’ great credit they want to show the person, not just the historical figure, and it greatly enriches the book by taking in his younger years first. The awkward lad with a brilliant brain that seems to grasp hugely complex problems easily and solve most of them just in his head (where the rest of us would fill entire journals working on the problem for years and still be scratching our heads), and yet to whom many of the normal everyday social interactional skills were a mystery (these days it’s hard not to imagine Jim Parsons’ wonderful portrayal of Dr Sheldon Cooper when noticing these quirks).

But there are still warm, social connections there despite his awkwardness, from family, from a few select friends, including Chris Morcom, a young, intelligent friend who accepts him as he is, and who other biographers have speculated about – was he perhaps young Turing’s first crush as he realised he preferred men to women? Here that isn’t exactly downplayed, but neither is it highlighted, instead, rather nicely focusing on their friendship and shared interests, sadly doomed to end all to early as Morcom died very young (the scenes following that are both sad and very touching, showing Turing the man, not just a brilliant brain, but a person with feelings).

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Some of the book follows Turing himself, showing him at school, college, being invited to America to Princeton where he is in the company of the likes of Von Neumman, Alonzo Church (even Einstein was there during this period), then into the wartime work and realising some of his ideas about “universal machines” could be used to help crack these Nazi cyphers, first by mechanical means (the famous “bombes” rotating and clacking away by the hundred, staffed by service woman often working in their undies due to the heat of the machinery) then (with the brilliant electronic engineering of the GPO’s Tommy Flowers) an actual electronic, digital computer, the first such in world history (although as it was a state secret for decades afterwards textbooks would give that honour to American scientists. Again those who worked on it kept their lips sealed about their much earlier efforts).

At many other points the book deviates from this approach, instead bringing in people who knew him, friends, colleagues, his mother, even his wartime fiance (who accepted even though she knew he was homosexual, because he liked her time with him), taking their turns in the interview chair, introducing parts of Turing’s life that they were involved in, as if in a documentary film. Again this very much helps personalise this story – it isn’t just about an odd but brilliant mind, it’s a person and the people who were around them. I also very much approved of the many nods to others from Bletchley, such as Dilly Knox or the “golden geese” (the servicewomen who worked there – as Churchill called the vital Bletchley decrypts, it was the goose which laid the golden eggs but never cackled. This was an era where one did one’s duties, all in it together, and did not talk about it. Most maintained that silence for decades until their work was declassified). The Bletchley segment is also something of a celebration of the “backroom boys”, the great British Boffin, the sort of chap with a brilliant mind solving amazing problems in time of need, and yet the sort who often forgets to tie his own shoelaces.

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And then there is that final act, the tragic act (again spoiler for those who are not familiar with this history and don’t want to know in advance of reading the book). The postwar work, struggling to get resources like they had during the war to continue his early computing work, and the nature of his homosexuality also coming out, no real, continuing romantic relationship, just the odd fling, giving an impression of sadness and loneliness, also of frustration at work he can’t advance as much as he wants. And finally the fling which lands him before the judicial system, because this was 1950s Britain and homosexuality wasn’t just frowned upon, it was actually illegal. His status and service saved him from prison, but cruelly he was put on a probation that included taking female hormones to “cure” him, causing him illness, weight gain and even developing breasts, provoking despair and depression and more isolation. Until this brilliant man, whose work had been absolutely pivotal to the survival of the entire nation, takes his own life with a poisoned apple (beautifully foreshadowed much earlier in the book as he and a college chum go to see the new Disney film, Snow White).

The disgrace of a man who had rendered such service to his country, to be treated so is shocking still, and the question that can never be answered echoes heavily over this last chapter – what else could have come from that brilliant mind? What other innovations would Turing have given to the fledgling computer industry? But despite this terribly sad ending this is not downbeat, this is a celebration of a remarkable man and an astonishing life. Purvis uses some wonderful visual tricks to convey the processes of Turing’s mind – a scene showing the ticker tape for an early thought experiment machine flowing past him as he effortlessly walks on and his friends struggle to keep up with him was rather wonderful, likewise a fantasy scene with Turing talking with the brilliant Ada Lovelace – another innovator of the world we now live in – is beautifully depicted, and there are lovely little cameos, including a young officer from Naval Intelligence, Commander Ian Fleming (later to create the James Bond novels).

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It’s a beautifully told story, both for those of us with some familiarity with Turing and that historical period, and to those who are new to it, a reminder also of the enormous debt the present and future always owe to the past and those who came before us, and what they achieved, often in the face of adversity; it celebrates an amazing man and the people he worked with. In 2009 the British Prime Minister issued a posthumous apology to Turing for his judicial treatment, in 2013 the Queen officially granted a royal pardon. Computer scientists, cognitive psychologists and philosophers are still debating Turing’s thought experiments on advanced computing technology actually being able to develop into artificial intelligence, his importance and work are still taught in academia around the globe.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Turing 100

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(Professor Jim Al-Khalili signing books after the Turing lecture)

On Thursday night I attended a special guest lecture at Edinburgh University’s George Square Theatre, organised by the Edinburgh Royal Society, with author, theoretical physicist and broadcaster (he’s presented some excellent science documentaries on the BBC and C4) Professor Jim Al-Khalili. It was part of a series of events going on this year to mark 100 years since one of the great minds of the 20th century, Alan Turing, was born. I’ve always been a huge admirer of Turing – the father of computing and Artificial Intelligence, working out systems on pencil and paper before he and his colleagues, along with the GPO’s hugely gifted electronic engineer Tommy Flowers, created the world’s first electronic computer, a device so secret it was classified for decades while publicly others took the glory for ‘first’ computers later. Because they used this to help break the Nazi Enigma codes, without which the Second World War might have taken many more years of hard struggle and countless thousands more lives. He and his Bletchley Park colleagues were, in a real sense, war heroes, just not the sort who carry a rifle into combat, but utterly essential to the defeat of the Axis and the safeguarding of free civilisation. Turing was also a gifted visionary who was able to conceive of using science and mathematics to model thought processes years before others, giving new pathways to exploring both computing technology then emerging as well as understanding more how the incredibly complex human brain works and how that could be applied to machines, if they too could be make to think, each step along that road revealing more about the astonishing complexity of our own minds than that of our complex technology.

Sadly in the 50s Turing, a homosexual man, was arrested, homosexuality being illegal at the time, stripped of his security clearance despite his wartime record and given a choice of chemical castration or prison. He took the former but was never the same; depressed he took his own life with an arsenic laced apple. So little appreciation from the government of the country he had helped save with his genius and dedication and a reminder today when we see some clergy and politicians making unsavoury remarks about gay people how such comments can lead to attitudes and actions which can take lives, to the detriment of all of society… Turing remains one of my scientific heroes, though, and I was pleased that a public campaign a couple of years ago resulted in the then Labour government of Gordon Brown publishing an official apology for the way Turing had been treated back in the Britain of the 50s.

Jer with Professor Jim Al Khalili
(my friend Jer with Jim after getting his copy of Jim’s latest book signed)

PM apologies for Turing

A while ago a petition was started on the 10 Downing Street site asking for the British government to do something posthumously about the great Alan Turing. Turing wasn’t just a genius – an astonishing mathematician, one of the fathers of computing (this in the 1940s, mark you), early thinker in Artificial Intelligence and a legendary codebreaker whose work in the incredibly secret world of BletchleyPark’s Station X was an enormous part of the Allied effort in the Second World War. In fact it is no exaggeration to state without the work of Turing and his fellows there is a very real chance the good guys might not have won, or at the very least the war would have run far longer, claiming many more lives (and imagine if Nazi Germany had lasted another 2 or 3 years, imagine if they had time to fully develop their new fast jet fighters to attack Allied bombers, expand their V2 rockets which there was no defence against, continue atomic experiments… It doesn’t bear thinking about).

There is a part in Neal Stephenson’s fascinating Cryptomonicon, a novel which, like his later (although set in earlier period) Baroque Cycle mixes real historical figures with fictional to create a tale richly detailed with extensively researched history, where those working with Turing in the race to decode the German Enigma codes ponders what they do. At first he thought their team was fighting the shadow war while the real war raged in the skies and seas and land. Then he starts to realise what they are doing, shadowy and theoretical as much of it is, is the real war: fates of convoys, great warships, divisions of troops, even the fates of nations depend on what they are doing behind the scenes.

For his enormous contribution to saving his nation and invaluable intelligence in defeating the most odious, vile threat the free world has faced Turing was persecuted by his country. Alan Turing was homosexual, at a time when it was not just treated as unacceptable by society but actually a criminal offence. His security clearance was revoked, he was hounded, subjected to a ridiculous snake-oil ‘cure’ which was effectively a form of chemical castration. Alan took his own life not long afterwards, eating an apple he had laced with cyanide. An intellectual genius who had armoured the free world against violent Nazi oppression was oppressed by a bigoted society until he took his own life. Thankfully today we have moved on a bit in the way that gay, lesbian, bi or transgender folks are viewed and treated but there are still so many ignorant bastards who still rant their ignorant bigotry as if LGBT people were of a different species and this is the cost of that kind of uncomprehending, ignorant hatred, one of our best and brightest lost and although he used his brain rather than a bayonet or a Spitfire, someone I would consider a war hero who fought the good fight as hard as anyone.

It is good in this month that marks the 70th anniversary of the start of World War Two that Gordon Brown has formally apologised for the way Turing was treated, although a full pardon and offering proper government support for the museum at Bletchley Park would be better – the place where many men and women laboured in secret, without honours or publicity, to help win the war deserves to be better known. Its not as eye-catching as a Spitfire or the Normandy Landings, but the backroom boffins of Station X paved the road to victory as surely as the soldiers, airmen and sailors, as well as pioneering a whole new field of codebreaking, intelligence and birthing the modern computer, all kept secret for decades, so sensitive was this information (much of it was used during the subsequent Cold War for British Intelligence, it was that good) and both Turing and his colleagues should all be far more honoured than they have been. We have many public monuments to those who sacrificed all in defending us, and its right we should, but we should also honour the remarkable intellects who did no less a work in defending everything we believe in.