It is unusual for me to have time to read just for fun this late in the semester. But I was happy to have a couple of free hours this afternoon to read a short, beautifully written novel, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, by the physicist Janna Levin.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Being a student of logic and analytic philosophy, I was of course very eager to read this book as it moves back and forth between the lives of the great logician Kurt Godel and the mathematician and computer pioneer Alan Turing, mixing fact and fiction, though Levin's account remains very faithful to the lives of these two tormented and tortured men. Along the way we read about encounters with other notable figures of 20th century thought, among them Moritz Schlick, the dominant figure of the Vienna Circle or logical positivists, who was murdered by a deranged student with Nazi sympathies, Oskar Morgenstern, one of the founders of game theory, and, of course, Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps the greatest philosopher of the last century. The discussion between Wittgenstein and Turing during a Cambridge seminar is both fascinating and frustrating, as is the overall contrast between the deterministic Turing and the mystically-minded Godel, who sees his Incompleteness Proof as a decisive refutation of many of the trends in 20th century philosophy. The final chapters on the decline and death of the two are harrowing, especially the vivid portrayal of what amounts to torture of Turing by the British authorities seeking to chemically suppress his homosexuality. It was Turing's work that led to the breaking of the German Enigma code during the Second World War, an important contributing cause to the defeat of the Nazis. It is nothing less than a tragedy that Turing was treated after the war not as a hero but a criminal.
In sum, I recommend Levin's book to anyone even remotely interested in 20th century philosophy.