Monday, 16 July 2012

Interview with Andrew Hodges. Part 2.

This week we continue the serialisation of my interview with Andrew Hodges. Below, I probe deeper into what Andrew got out of writing the book.

Once again, if you are interested in reading more about Andrew Hodges you can find his website here and his book can be bought from here.
When/ how/ why did you start thinking about writing a biography about Turing?
Well, when I learned I had these three connections with the man and he had such a story I knew I had to tell it. However, it would’ve been very difficult simply to write an article. All of the connections as I’ve just described were hidden at this time. No one even knew the story of the computer because of Bletchley Park being so secret!

I also sensed that there was a big fascinating story to tell about how all of these links came together in just one person. I had a feeling that it would be possible to present something modern in its social and political point of view but about something unexpected, namely the history of technology, science and the Second World War. Although at the beginning I didn’t realise just how big the story would become and how difficult it would be to get all of the information.

Because it was so difficult did you ever get frustrated?
It was difficult to do, but the discipline of writing a biography means that you have the unifying feature of a single person’s vision and you don’t have to cover everything that was going on in the world at that time, which is what historians have to do. I liked the idea of working through someone else’s life and remembering that they never knew what was going to happen next. That is one of the things that kept me going during the difficult times. It was hard work interviewing people about subjects that, at the time, where either secret or difficult to talk about. I also acquired a lot of scientific material, which in the beginning I knew nothing about.

What kind of character was Turing?
 He was certainly odd. But in mathematics we have a slightly different picture of what you expect people to be like. Many of the things that strike people as odd came across to me as traits that anyone involved in deep concentration, not just mathematicians, would have.

One way of putting it is that he lived a lot like people did 20 years later.

That is quite an interesting point as, having read your book, Alan seems to come across as a relatively normal person.
Yes, but normal for a number of decades later. I would say that rather as his ideas (computation and morphogenesis) were ahead of his time, so was his lifestyle. We just wouldn’t have made such a fuss about his oddness during the sixties and seventies.

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