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The Annotated Turing: A Guided Tour Through Alan Turing's Historic Paper on Computability and the Turing Machine by Charles Petzold

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16  Conceiving the Continuum

Real life is often much messier and more complex than the histories that attempt to capture it in a series of consecutive sentences and paragraphs. Historians must smooth out the rough edges, omit peripheral personages, and avoid distracting digressions. This simplification sometimes distorts as much as it attempts to illuminate. The resultant series of events might seem unnaturally inevitable, as if nothing could have happened to make it go differently, and even imply that these events led to the best of all possible outcomes. Sometimes the result is what British historian Herbert Butterfield (1900–1979) called “a Whig interpretation of history” after those nineteenth-century writers who portrayed the history of the British Empire as leading progressively and inexorably toward modern parliamentary democracy.

Histories of science, mathematics, and technology are particularly susceptible to Whig interpretations. We are the beneficiaries of the “correct” scientific theories and the “proper” technologies, so we can identify a chain back through history, associating effects to causes that have led to this inevitable outcome. Floundering missteps are de-emphasized, and if historical disagreements or feuds are discussed, they always result in the proper vanquishing of anyone trying to impede the progress that led to the glorious moment we're all here to celebrate.

In relating the history of the Turing Machine, for example, it is tempting to mold the past ...

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