The Turing Guide (review)

By on 01/05/2017

Oxford University Press just published “The Turing Guide“, a more than 500 pages book from some of the best international experts of Alan Turing, as Jack Copeland, Jonathan Bowen, Mark Sprevak, and Robin Wilson. The book is a quite complete introduction to the life and the works form one of the greatest scientists of the 20th Century. Ruggero Pagnan has made a review for the Italian Site MaddMaths!, and here you find it in an English translation. 


On June 23 2017 it will recur the one hundred and fifth anniversary of Alan Turing’s birth and The Turing guide celebrates the great thinker by pointing out the centrality of his figure with respect to the ways of scientific investigation that originated from his ingenious ideas and prodigious intuitions, leading to some of the most estreme and unexplored regions of many and diversified ambits of knowledge. In the case of a complex figure such as the one of Alan Turing, in order to know what and how much in such ambits is a direct consequence of his thought it is necessary to provide oneself with a touring guide, properly such, like The Turing guide is.

The Ancient Romans were used to say that all the streets lead to Rome, to point out the centrality of the eternal city with respect to a system of ways that lead to it, and that from it lead to the most extreme and unexplored regions of the world knew in those times. To concisely describe the centrality of Alan Turing with respect to the consequences generated by his ideas and intuitions by saying that “all the streets lead to Alan Turing”, would be simplistic.

The Turing guide is divided in eight parts, each part is divided in chapters written as contributions by different people some of which, recently dead, have been contemporaneous to Alan Turing and more or less strictly collaborated with him. Within the parts that divide The Turing guide a different aspect of the life and work of Alan Turing is extensively treated, as we are going to summarily describe.

Part I: mainly of biographical character, it contains an essential timeline of the life of Alan Turing, the point of view of a nephew of him about the salient episodes of the life of the important uncle, the testament of a collaborator about how it was to work side by side with a genius like Alan Turing, the report of the trial – for being homosexual – and the punishment to chemical castration that Alan Turing had to suffer.

Part II: is about the construction of the first programmable electronic computing machines around 1948 through the theoretical idea of their concrete realizability, in the notion of universal computing machine developed by Alan Turing in 1936 about some important questions in the foundations of mathematics.

Part III: it describes in detail what Alan Turing actually did during the Second World War while employed as a cryptanalist at Bletchley Park, the headquarter of the British cryptanalists during the wartime period. For him the War was an occasion to employ his brilliance with success. It is acknowledged that without the fundamental contribution of Alan Turing the War would had last surely longer, ending possibly with a defeat of the Allies. Much of what Alan Turing did during the employment at Bletchley Park have been covered by military secret since recent times.

Part IV: it is about the post-war period during which Alan Turing contributed fundamentally to the then rising computing machine science, first in London at the National Physics Laboratory and subsequently in Manchester at the Computing Machine Laboratory.

Part V: Alan Turing was also the founder of that ambit of scientific investigation that nowadays is referred to as Artificial Intelligence. In this part of The Turing guide are described the contributions that he gave and the sparkling intuitions that he had about some of the questions that naturally arise in the ambit of Artificial Intelligence, from what it may mean to think to the characterization, if possible and in this case how, of what could be considered as an intelligent behaviour on behalf of computing machines in particular. With regards to this, the significance of the often cited Turing test is widely discussed in this part.

Part VI: it is dedicated to the description of the theory of morphogenesis of the biological tissues elaborated by Alan Turing toward the end of his life, as a last scientific contribution, one more time extraordinarily original, profound and wide spreading. The theory provides an explanation of how the shapes of the living organisms arise.

Part VII: it is dedicated to the description of some of the significant results that Alan Turing gave in the specific ambit of mathematics, pure as well as applied.

Part VIII: it is a finale which on one side is about some speculative topics concerning the point of view on the Universe as a computing machine, toward the discussion about recent plays, novels, and music inspired by the figure of Alan Turing.

The Turing guide is a collection of different portraits of the existential profile of Alan Turing, which could be shown to compose an exhibition provided with a powerful central idea from its beginning to its end; a central idea made of astonishment, amazement and a persistent upset for the tragic end of the life of Alan Turing, who prematurely died at 41 maybe because of a banal fatality, maybe because of the taking place of a cruel will by virtue of the reason of State, or maybe because of his suicide will.
To read the The Turing guide thoroughly transmits the sensation of being involved in the exploits of a giant of the thought who rode the History in a sequence of events that share an paramount unavoidability.
Thanks to The Turing guide, to wonder how the World could have been if Alan Turing was never born and how it would be today if he did not prematurely die is completely non-rhetorical and provided with a deep significance.

Ruggero Pagnan

The Turing Guide
Jack Copeland, Jonathan Bowen, Mark Sprevak, and Robin Wilson
Format Paperback | 576 pages
Dimensions 191 x 247 x 28mm | 1,244g
Publication date 26 Mar 2017
Publisher Oxford University Press
Publication City/Country Oxford, United Kingdom
Language English
ISBN10 0198747837, ISBN13 9780198747833
Ebook: Kindle edition, Kobo Edition (epub)

About Roberto Natalini

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