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TuringReview - Turing
(A Novel about Computation)
by Christos H. Papadimitriou
MIT Press, 2003
Review by Dave MacCallum, Ph.D.
Jul 16th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 28)

There are many things that could have gone really wrong with a book like this.  The good news is that none of them did.  Things could have gone really wrong because this is a book about computation that is also a novel, and moreover a novel that contains both an international cyber-intrigue and a fair amount of intellectual history.  If that sounds like a recipe for confusion to you, then you share the worries I had when I began to read this book.  But despite the occasional sense that things weren't quite holding together, when I finished the book I came away entertained and impressed by what the author pulled off.

The reader of this review should know something about the reviewer.  As I am a logician, specializing in the theory of computation and having studied the history and philosophy of science, there was not a whole lot new for me about computation or intellectual history in this book.  But despite this, I thoroughly enjoy reading what Papadimitriou wrote about these topics, and seeing them from his perspective.  Speaking of his perspective, the reader of this review should also know that Papadimitriou is a very distinguished computer scientist, and a noted expert in the theory of computation.  His presentation of the theory of computation is both masterful (no surprise) and pleasantly light-handed (also not a surprise for those who have read his technical work).  Anyone who wants to learn about what computation really is, but does not want to get into the trenches with Turing machines and complexity classes, will not go wrong reading this novel.  There is a lot of muddled thinking about computation, and much nonsense written about it in popular books.  Much of this stems from the inability to distinguish computation, and what it can and cannot do, from the handy devices we all use to send email and shop online.  While these machines are fun, useful and have transformed our society in a remarkably short time, the beauty and power of computation is usually lost on all but the few who study it seriously.  Papadimitriou brings some of that beauty and power to the non-expert.

But as I said, this book is also a novel.  The main live, human characters are Alexandros, an archaeologist, Ethel, an extremely successful computer executive, and Ian, an uber-hacker.  The main historical character is Alan Turing, the mathematician who played such a key role in establishing what computation is, and what it can and cannot do.  There is also a character named Turing who is a very special sort of computer program that Alexandros makes contact with, and that teaches him all of the lessons in computation and science that I have mentioned.  But Turing-the-program is more than a tutor, he ends up being a key player in the cyber-intrigue that is developed around Ethel and Ian, and that draws in Alexandros.  Of these various characters, the most interesting are Alexandros and the historical Alan Turing.  Alexandros is an expert in archeology, but starts out knowing nothing about computation and its related subjects.  His intellectual capabilities and technical naïveté make him the perfect tutee for Turing-the-program.  But there is also a love story that Alexandros is a main player in, and it is his character's development in that love story that is the most successful novelistic feature of the book.

The historical Turing was a profound thinker, whose deeply important mathematics had the extremely rare consequence of quickly changing the world we live in.  He did this not only with his work on computation, but also his contributions to cryptanalysis during the Second World War.  But Turing was also man whose life ended when he was still young.  Because he was a homosexual, Turing was badgered and eventually persecuted by the authorities in his own country, England.  This led him to take his own life.  Papadimitriou tells Turing's story very well, and it brings home the sadness of his life and the senseless loss of a great talent.

The cyber-intrigue centered on Ian and Ethel is the least successful part of the book.  Perhaps the dotcom collapse has taken the bloom off the virtual rose, but when we move from the sand and sun world of Alexandros and the moving story of Turing to the tale of Ian and his hacking exploits the novel loses some of its energy and drive.  But this is really a minor complaint, and I am willing to admit that it may well stem from my general dislike of science fiction, or anything that even smells like it.  And the cyber-intrigue has a bit of that scent.

If you want an entertaining book that teaches you a lot about the theory of computation, that engages you in the humanness of a great figure from history and that tells an often compelling tale about some very interesting people, then this is a book for you.

 

© 2005 David MacCallum

 

Dave MacCallum, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Philosophy Department,  Carleton College


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