“Imitation Game” Biography of Alan Turing Online
Jim Ottaviani, known for his scientist biographies Feynman, Primates, and Dignifying Science, among others, is back with a new one. The Imitation Game is the story of Alan Turing, the “father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence”. Best of all, right now, you can read it for free at Tor.com. As Ottaviani describes it,
Flying at the head of Churchill’s flock was Alan Turing, the mathematician who cracked the German Enigma code. That alone would be enough to secure his place in history, but before the war he launched modern computer science via his creation of the Universal Turing Machine, and after the war he created what is now known as the Turing Test, a benchmark for artificial intelligence. He called his test ‘The Imitation Game’.
He was also openly gay in a time and place where gays were treated criminally. And not just metaphorically — he killed himself with a cyanide-tainted apple after being convicted of homosexuality and forced to undergo estrogen treatment.
Our world is one of computers and secure communications, and Turing’s work is at the heart of both. He was an eccentric genius, an Olympic-class runner, a witty and clear communicator about complicated ideas, and open and honest to a fault. The secret he kept to safeguard his country could have saved him; the secret he refused to keep to save himself meant his destruction at the hands of that same country.
As with Suspended in Language, the story of Niels Bohr, this one is illustrated by Leland Purvis. I thought the story was strongest if you already knew some of the details of Turing’s life, since Ottaviani’s story can err on the side of subtlety — although maybe I just miss seeing the endnotes that usually are included in his books. Perhaps for the print version, whenever it appears. Regardless, Ottaviani does an excellent job bringing out the emotions and character of those engaged in scientific advancement.