Recent years have brought the mathematical reader interested in fiction a number of books to read. The Wild Numbers, The French Mathematician, and Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture are but some of the recent novels set in mathematics departments or featuring mathematicians in their story. While these novels succeed to various extents both as works of fiction and in their portrayal of mathematical culture, none of them truly attempts to teach more than a smidgen of mathematics to the readers. The same cannot be said of the recent novel by Christos H Papadimitriou, Turing (A Novel about Computation). The debut novel by this Berkeley computer science professor is both a novel and also a primer on many topics in computer science.
The story concerns a young couple who meet in Greece in the near future. Alexandros is an archeologist and Ethel is a hotshot computer programmer. They fall in love after a brief encounter on the Grecian island of Corfu, and then Ethel leaves as quickly as she arrived. Shortly thereafter, Ethel meets another man, and Alexandros starts communicating with an artificial intelligence program over the web who attempts to teach him all about computers. It is these dialogues that form a large part of the book. They cover topics such as algorithms, P vs NP, artificial intelligence, and how computers work in the first place. These dialogues are sprinkled throughout novel as the love triangle unfolds.
To add to what was already a clever way of teaching about computer science, Papadimitriou adds another clever wrinkle. At a number of places throughout the book the author clearly has more to say about a topic than the flow of the story would allow. Rather than using traditional footnotes or appendices to address these issues, he reproduces at the book of the book a series of postings from a fictional newsgroup dedicated to the discussion of the novel, where different "experts" discuss some of the more technical issues that the book brings up.
As a teaching device, I think Turing succeeds spectacularly. Admittedly, I knew much — but not all — of the material that the book discussed, and I imagine many readers of MAA Online will be in the same situation. Furthermore, I cannot really comment on the appropriateness of using this book as supplemental material in a computer science course, but if there was a similar book explaining some of the ideas of calculus or linear algebra I would welcome it in my classroom. And certainly if I had a student — or a friend — who wanted to learn some computer science in a fun way without getting too bogged down in details, I would certainly recommend this book.
As a novel, the book does not succeed as well, but it is also not a horrible failure. In many ways, the book reminds me of Marshall Jevons's Murder at the Margin, which was in name a murder mystery but in practice a series of chatty expositions about topics from an Economics 101 class. Turing is less clunky than that book, and the story aspects of the book hold up somewhat better, but neither would anybody mistake it for Umberto Eco or Don DeLillo or even The DaVinci Code. The characters are interesting and well fleshed out, and the story is fine if a bit clichéd. Overall, I think the book is a cleverly written and engaging introduction to many topics that are worth knowing about, and if you are interested in learning a little computer science it is well worth a look.
Darren Glass is a VIGRE Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Columbia University. His research interests include number theory, algebraic geometry, and cryptography. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org