Sunday, 27 January 2008

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin

Weidenfeld & Nicolson

WHAT is it with mad scientists and poisoned apples?

Robert Oppenheimer, geeky progenitor of the atomic bomb, allegedly tried to poison Patrick Blackett, a Nobel physicist, with a poisoned apple.

Kurt Godel, famous for his 'incompleteness theory', incompleted himself to death, so paranoid of poisoned apples that he gradually starved.

And Alan Turing, true father of the computer, died by his own hand, eating an apple he'd treated with cyanide, in his misery after being subject to 'chemical castration', the sentence of an English court for the crime of having a love affair with a man.

Physicist Janna Levin teaches at Columbia University. She's worked at the Centre for Particle Astrophysics at Berkeley, and in Cambridge, and as scientist-in-residence at the Ruskin School in Oxford.

Her book comes garlanded with awards and praise, yet I found it rather like its subjects - Turing and Godel, with a sideswipe at Wittgenstein - eccentric, brilliant but cold.

The writing is truly lovely, and parts are truly funny. (The description of Turing, in the middle of breaking the Nazis' Enigma Code, hauling along a pram with €12,000 worth of silver in today's money to bury it in a wood had me laughing painfully.)

If you love science, you'll adore this book. Give it to all your left-brained friends.

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