Alan M Turing: Centenary Edition by Sara Turing

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Alan M Turing: Centenary Edition by Sara Turing

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A mother's look at her son's life - and the brother setting the record straight. It's a family's look at the father of modern computer science. A good read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 194 Date: March 2012
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 978-1107020580

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June 2012 will see the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, brilliant mathematician, the man who played a major part in breaking the Enigma codes in the Second World War and widely thought to be the father of computer science. To celebrate the anniversary Cambridge University Press have reprinted a short biography written by Turing's mother and included a memoir written by his older brother, John. I'm rarely impressed by biographies written by family members particularly when they're still coming to terms with their own grief, but this book is startling for what it says about the family members as much as for what it says about Alan Turing.

Sara Turing was in her seventies when she wrote this biography and was coping with the death of her younger son who was just forty one when he died. Her intention was not to write the definitive biography but rather to provide a framework, a basis on which other biographers could work. She's patiently trawled through school reports and correspondence, extracting the good as well as the bad (or indifferent) and has summarised his work in an admirable way which even I - a non-scientist - found comprehensible. It appears to be a warts-and-all resumé of a life lived simply but with immense promise which was cut short by a ridiculous accident brought about by his carelessness.

Except - that's not how it was. Sara Turing can easily be forgiven for not recognising the symptoms of what we would now recognise as Asperger Syndrome. To her - and to many others - Alan was simply unusual. What it's more difficult to accept is her complete failure to acknowledge Turing's homosexuality or his conviction for indecency which might well have been the trigger for his suicide. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that the history was being laid out - without those inconvenient facts which were brushed under the carpet.

Then there's the brother's memoir. If the mother exhibited Edwardian values and sensitivities then the brother has the worst of twentieth century prejudices. He's proud of putting the record straight, convinced that Alan's homosexuality was down to the time they both spent with foster parents whilst their mother and father were in India and borderline offensive about a fellow mathematician to whom Alan was briefly engaged. Contrast this with the girlfriends whom he brought home and who cheered his father up no end.

So, you're wondering, why would anyone want to read the book? Well, it's all put into context by a foreword from Martin Davis, which looks at each period covered by Sara Turing's biography and the memoir and puts them into context, admittedly with the benefit of hindsight. He's measured, insightful and a pleasure to read. He brings Turing to life not just through his own words, but also those of his mother and brother.

I'd like to thank the publisher for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

For another look at Turing's life, which has the benefit of saying up-front that it's fictional, we can recommend A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin.

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Buy Alan M Turing: Centenary Edition by Sara Turing at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Alan M Turing: Centenary Edition by Sara Turing at


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