Geeks celebrate 100th birthday of tragic genius

Alan Turing was a brilliant genius, but had a largely unhappy life, and a tragic death.

Tomorrow marks the 100th birthday of Alan Turing, a mathematical genius who cracked Nazi codes, pioneered modern computing, but was also a victim of appalling prejudice and injustice.

For scientists, this weekend brings a bittersweet celebration. Exactly 100 years ago on Saturday, Alan Turing – a man who revolutionised computing – was born.

In his early years, Turing only showed a hint of the genius he would become. ‘Undeniably he is not a “normal” boy,’ one school report reads: ‘not the worse for that, but probably less happy.’

It was at school that Turing first experienced love – and tragedy. He became besotted with Charles Morcom, an older pupil, who died of tuberculosis at 18. Devastated, Turing became obsessed with a philosophical question: whether the mind could exist outside the physical body.

At King’s College, Cambridge, that obsession was given an outlet – the quest for computers that could think. At the age of just 22, he created a blueprint for the Turing Machine, that could solve any mathematical computation. The machine is now regarded as one of the most important ancestors of the modern computer.

When the second world war broke out in 1939, Turing found his talents in great demand. Working at the top secret allied base at Bletchley Park, he created the Bombe: a machine capable of cracking the Nazi’s ‘unbreakable’ Enigma code. His work may have shortened the war by up to three years – saving something like 21 million lives in the process.

For his efforts, Turing was awarded an OBE. But the prejudices of his time turned against him. In 1952, he began a relationship with a man called Arnold Murray – a somewhat unsavoury character, who attempted to burgle Turing’s home.

But when the eminent mathematician called the police, he was arrested. His ‘crime’ was homosexuality, which was, in those days, still illegal.

Turing was given an impossible choice: imprisonment, or chemical castration to remove his sex drive. He opted for the latter. But the course of hormone injections plunged him into a deep depression. On the 8th June 1954, the hero of Bletchley was found dead. He had killed himself with an apple laced with cyanide.

Others say Turing’s tragedy is his most important legacy. The fact that the British government could treat a hero so cruelly is a stark reminder of the dangers of prejudice – in all its forms. If society takes anything from Turing’s life, it must be this.

Personal legacy?

What is Turing’s greatest achievement? Some argue for wartime codebreaking. It was crucial to allied victory, and saved millions of lives. Changing the course of global history beats his other breakthroughs hands down.

But history can be changed in other ways. Today, almost everything depends on computers – and Turing lay the foundations for this technological revolution. His creativity and genius was crucial in creating the modern world.

You Decide

  1. What was Turing’s greatest achievement?
  2. How has Turing changed the way we live today?

Activities

  1. Design a fitting memorial for Turing, to commemorate the centenary of his birth.
  2. Write a short obituary of Alan Turing, as imagined at the time of his death. How do you think journalists at the time would have reacted to the news?

Some People Say...

“Everyone in Britain should be ashamed of the way Turing was treated.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How is the centenary being celebrated?
There are heaps of events scheduled, both within the scientific community and out. Don’t miss the special exhibition on Turing’s work at London’s Science Museum – his own nephew has described it as ‘geek heaven’.
What kind of developments might his work lead to?
That, perhaps, is where his most exciting legacy lies. A big part of Turing’s work dealt with artificial intelligence – the idea that machines could begin to think for themselves. He developed the elegant Turing test for artificial intelligence: if a person cannot distinguish between the answers of a computer and another person, the machine can be said to be truly intelligent. So far, no machine has passed the famous test – though scientists are still working on it.

Word Watch

Enigma Code
This ‘unbreakable’ code was generated using rotors in a machine, that encrypted texts on a letter-by-letter basis. It was so difficult to crack because each letter was routed through several scrambling rotors before being encoded.
Cyanide
This poisonous chemical has been used as a means of suicide or murder for many years – most notably during the Holocaust, when Hitler put it to use in gas chambers. Exposure to it results in coma, seizures and cardiac arrest, followed by death in a matter of minutes. Turing’s post-mortem records that his brain smelt strongly of ‘bitter almonds’ – a tell-tale sign of cyanide exposure.
Homosexuality
When Turing was convicted of gross indecency – relating to his homosexuality – police forces in the UK were actively enforcing laws against gay male sexual activity. In 1967, homosexuality was decriminalised, and in 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology for the way Turing had been treated.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.