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Book Club: “The Man Who Knew Too Much” by David Leavitt

Posted on : May-20-2012 | By : John | In : Book Club

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June 23 marks the 100th birthday of one of the most important mathematicians of the 20th century, a man who if not singlehandedly winning World War II, shortened it by at least a year and saved millions of lives, and was repaid by being persecuted, prosecuted and hounded to death. Alan Turing was the founder of computer science who formalized the fundamental concepts of computability, computational complexity, and the algorithm[1]. He was also a brilliant logician and cryptanalyst and invented the Turing Machine and the Turing Test.

Our next book will be The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer by David Leavitt. The Amazon reviews on this book are mixed, but I think we’ll enjoy it. Most of the negative reviews focus on it being too mathematical, but if I recall correctly, most of us found our previous math oriented book, The Calculus Diaries, lacking in actual math. (What can I say, we’re hardcore nerds.) We might end up agreeing with a couple of other negative reviewers who found it not rigorous enough or who focus on a small number of mistakes or misunderstandings, but most of the reviews found Leavitt’s explanations very cogent, and the book itself a good mix of the biography, history, math and the tragic consequences of the extreme homophobia that ruled much of the last century.

Update: If you are unfamiliar with Turing’s life or his work, Courtney has posted an excellent biographical essay on Queereka (which Will has cross-posted to Skepchick.)

The Pilot ACE was a prototype of the ACE, which was the actual computer designed by Turing, but I couldn't, in a lazy Google search, find any pictures of the ACE.

A Computer

We will be meeting at the usual time and place, Saturday June 16, 2012 at 3 PM in either the conference room in the Northwest Science Building at Harvard or outdoors under the Giant Green Pepper if the weather is nice.

Please sign up at our Facebook event page (unless you’d rather not, but it does give us some idea of how many people to expect.) It seems to be working again; I guess last month’s rant was effective.

[1] No, Al Gore never claimed to have invented the Algorithm, any more than he claimed to invent the Internet.

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