JF Ptak Science Books Post 1770
There is a terrific find on Alex Bellos' website exhibiting Alan Turing's “report cards” for his time at the great Sherborne School from 1926-1930 (and which were transcribed by archivist Rachel Hassall), from the time when Turing was 14 to 19 years old. Turing (1912-1954) I think needs no introduction for his importance to mathematics and computing (and code breaking during WWII), and it is very interesting—thrilling even—to see how his instructors were coming to grips with the developing genius. Even at such a school as Sherborne (a very old school with 39 headmasters overseeing the place since 1437) where the teachers were I am sure familiar with gifted pupils, The comments on the reports of Turing's progressed showed that many weren't quite sure about what Turing was all about. Obviously Turing as a boy was very gifted, but many instructors reported as many hindrances to his intellectual development as there were advances—more, even.
Perhaps people at the school didn't know exactly how to deal with him; perhaps they did, but still at the end of the day Turing had to meet the common standards of the school. Or perhaps not—I really can't tell from the transcripts presented by Bellos and I don't know the intricate history of the school. But certainly as time progressed Turing's abilities were more readily recognized, but early on it seems that his talents didn't overwhelm his many supposed shortcomings, the faults of the parts larger than the whole of what he could accomplish. In instructors' comments across all of his disciplines, Turing was “capricious”, “untidy”, “lacking in life”, “need(ed) concentration”, “depressing unless it amuses him”, “careless”, “absent minded”, “un-methodological”, “slovenly”, (made) “mistakes as a result of hastywork”, and so on. He “could do much better” though one instructor felt that “he may fail through carelessness”. All of which may well have been true—from the outside. These statements may have simply been the result of teachers not being able to reach a boy genius, and perhaps the boy couldn't be reached, at least early on in his academic career.
The statements in general—especially in the maths—I think are fascinating things. It may be easy to judge some of the remarks as intemperate, the teachers unable to clearly see the genius-in-the-making who (70 years later) we can so clearly see today. I think the remarks need more careful consideration than that, and that is where they become interesting.
Here are some selection from reports on Alan Turing, 1926-1930, below; a more full list exists at the Bellos site, here.
1926. Works well. He is still very untidy. He must try to improve in this respect
1927. Very good. He has considerable powers of reasoning and should do well if he can quicken up a little and improve his style.
____. A very good term’s work, but his style is dreadful and his paper always dirty.
____. Not very good. He spends a good deal of time apparently in investigations in advanced mathematics to the neglect of his elementary work. A sound ground work is essential in any subject. His work is dirty.
____. Despite absence he has done a really remarkable examination (1st paper). A mathematician I think.
____ I think he has been somewhat tidier, though there is still plenty of room for improvement. A keen & able mathematician.