The Imitation Game

Alan Turing, codebreaking, Bletchley Park


Eagerly awaited general release of The Imitation Game (trailer), starring Benedict Cumberbatch in a superb bit of acting, and was not disappointed. The story, hidden for almost 30 years, is by now familiar—Alan Turing, the brilliant but eccentric Oxford student admitted to Bletchley Park’s code-breaking team, figures out how to decrypt messages generated by the Nazis’ super-secret Enigma machine, shortening WWII by two years, and, oh, by the way, inventing computers in the process.

Last month Andrew Hodges, author of the book the movie’s based on, was in town for a talk—a bit dazed about this great success 30 years post-publication—and his insights (summarized here) were, frankly, helpful. He powerfully described the homophobia that pervaded the British intelligence services (and society in general) in the 1950’s that made Turing a target. Also the greater significance of the apples, alluded to only glancingly in the movie and without context. Turing was fascinated with the Snow White story, and saying more drifts into spoiler territory.

I earnestly hope someone said to him what Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) says near the end of this film. Clarke responds to Turing’s lifelong struggle with being different from other boys and men, and says how he “saved millions of lives by never fitting in,” as Tom Long put it in The Detroit News. Or, “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine,” says the movie’s tagline.

There’s a little too much standing in front of the marvelous prop constructed for the movie, which the producer says is like the original Turing machine, just not in a box, so you can see the works. The secondary characters are thinly developed and no doubt worthy of greater interest. However, the scenes of Turing as a young boy (Alex Lawther), trying to come to terms with his differentness, are heartbreaking. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%; audience score 95%.

The Book Behind The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch, Enigma, The Imitation GameIn wide release this Christmas will be the new film The Imitation Game (trailer), eagerly awaited by all serious fans of cryptography, World War II history-Bletchley Park division, spy stories, the invention of computers, and Benedict Cumberbatch. (My review of the movie.)Last week the author of the book on which the movie is based, Andrew Hodges, spoke here in Princeton. Hodges’s book—“one of the finest biographies of a scientific genius ever written,” said the Los Angeles Times reviewer—is Alan Turing: The Enigma: The Book That Inspired the Film “The Imitation Game” published in 1983 by Princeton University Press, which is congratulating itself heartily over its three-decades’-ago decision.

As you may recall, Alan Turing was the young British scientist (incorrect to label him a mathematical genius, because part of his brilliance was in blending fields—logic, engineering, biology, and mathematics) who led the successful efforts to break the Nazi naval codes in World War II. The machine created to do this was an early computer, and a paper Turing wrote in 1936 laid the foundation for the theory of computer science, by imagining a field that previously did not exist.

In Princeton in 1936-38, he worked on speech-scrambling technology. His interest in these diverse topics led him to an interest in ciphers and artificial intelligence, and these interests led not just to the Turing Test (“the imitation game”), but to Bletchley Park and the team of scientists there. Turing’s pivotal role in the Allied accomplishment, like most information about the unraveling of the Germans’ Enigma machine, was not revealed until the 1970s. Hodges said some of his theories about the connection between mathematics and biology were so advanced they are only now receiving attention in science.

Turing’s homosexuality caused few problems in the tolerant environment of King’s College, Oxford, but after the war, that changed. He held vast amounts of wartime secrets in his head, and it was a period of intense anti-Soviet paranoia. The authorities worried about his vulnerability. He died at age 42 of cyanide poisoning, and Hodges believes the coroner’s conclusion that his death was suicide, although the pressure that may have been brought to bear on him is unknown. He left just enough mystery about his death that his mother could console herself it was one of his science experiments gone wrong and conspiracy speculators could ever since consider it part of the enigma.