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Janna Levin

A madman dreams of Turing machines

Kurt Godel and Alan Turing were two of the most prominent mathematicians of the twentieth century, but their desire for privacy means that it is hard for a biography to tell what they were really like. Janna Levin solves this problem by making clear that much of what she is writing is fiction. In A madman dreams of Turing machines she tells their stories.

Thus we hear of Turing's troubled life at school, at of Gödel's entry into the Vienna Circle, and of how well his ideas were accepted. The book goes on to tell of Turing's vital work during the World War II in decoding the Enigma machine code, and of the problems he faced due to his homosexuality, eventually resulting in his suicide. We find out about how Gödel's paranoia meant that it took great effort from his wife Adele to get him to eat anything, and how when she becomes too ill to feed him he gradually starves himself to death.

So how well does the fictional account work? I liked the way that Levin combined her own musings about the nature of reality with those of her partially fictional characters. Unfortunately I felt that this was overshadowed by more of the book being about the lives of two misfits - I wasn't so keen on this. Certainly if you want to find out a bit about Gödel and Turing's lives without having to plough through lots of maybe's then I would say that this book is close enough to reality to be worth reading.

Amazon.com info
Paperback 240 pages  
ISBN: 1400032407
Salesrank: 318532
Weight:0.5 lbs
Published: 2007 Anchor
Amazon price $13.29
Marketplace:New from $10.05:Used from $1.99
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Amazon.co.uk info
Paperback 230 pages  
ISBN: 1400032407
Salesrank: 269152
Weight:0.5 lbs
Published: 2007 Anchor Books
Marketplace:New from £9.94:Used from £2.32
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Amazon.ca info
Paperback 240 pages  
ISBN: 1400032407
Salesrank: 126868
Weight:0.5 lbs
Published: 2007 Anchor
Amazon price CDN$ 10.16
Marketplace:New from CDN$ 10.16:Used from CDN$ 0.73
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Product Description

Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems sent shivers through Vienna’s intellectual circles and directly challenged Ludwig Wittgenstein’s dominant philosophy. Alan Turing’s mathematical genius helped him break the Nazi Enigma Code during WWII. Though they never met, their lives strangely mirrored one another—both were brilliant, and both met with tragic ends. Here, a mysterious narrator intertwines these parallel lives into a double helix of genius and anguish, wonderfully capturing not only two radiant, fragile minds but also the zeitgeist of the era.