The person in this experiment is renowned British mathematician Alan Turing, who is perhaps best known for his success in defeating the German Enigma encryption machine during World War II, as well as his pioneering work in artificial intelligence, which helped lead to the development of the modern personal computer. He is hailed as the founder of computer science.
Alan Mathison Turing was born on June 23, 1912 in Maida Vale, London. His father Julius held a position with the Indian Civil Service, and his mother Ethel Sara, was the daughter of a railway engineer.
Julius Turing’s position led the family to India, but both parents preferred to raise their children in Britain, so they moved to Maida Vale before Alan was born. He also had an older brother, John Turing.
Alan attended St. Michael’s school in St. Leonards-on-Sea as a young boy, and was enrolled at the age of 13 at the well-known Sherborne School in Dorset. He was so determined to attend on the first day that he rode his bicycle 60 miles by himself to arrive in time, staying overnight at an inn.
Turing did not always achieve high marks in school, much to the frustration of many of his teachers. They were also dismayed by his passionate interest in science and mathematics, which were considered second-class pursuits at the time. Education for a proper gentleman was supposed to be focused on the classics, which were of much less interest to Alan. Yet his genius was more than apparent, and he was able to grasp advanced concepts of calculus and physics without having studied them formally.
Following his time at Sherborne, Turing studied at King’s College Cambridge from 1931-1934, earning first-class honors in mathematics. In 1936 he produced a paper entitled “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem (Decision Problem).” This dissertation introduced the idea of a machine called the Universal Turing Machine, which would be capable of computing anything that could be computed, if it could be expressed as an algorithm. This paper contained the central concepts of the modern computer, and remains influential to this day.
Alan received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1938, studying cryptology in addition to mathematics. His dissertation, “Systems of Logic Based on Ordinals,” expanded his original Turing machines to be able to solve more complex problems.
World War II and Enigma
After completing his graduate work, Turing returned to England, where he accepted a part-time position with the Government Code and Cypher School, the British code-breaking organization. In 1939 he began working at Bletchley Park, the wartime headquarters of the GC&CS, where he made several important advances in cryptanalysis. The first, and perhaps most significant, was his improvements to the specifications of a Polish codebreaking machine known as the bombe, which was used to decipher messages encrypted by the German Enigma machines.
The bombe was designed to automatically work out the potential settings of an Enigma messages using a fragment of possible text. The machine narrowed down the settings by eliminating contradictions in the text, leaving a much smaller range of possibilities to be investigated. The first bombe was installed in March of 1940.
By 1941, Turing and his colleagues became frustrated by a lack of resources to build more codebreaking machines, so they wrote directly to Winston Churchill, who responded by greatly increasing their funding. As a result, 200 bombes were in operation by the end of the war.
In the same year, Alan proposed marriage to fellow codebreaker Joan Clarke, but later broke off their engagement after admitting to her that he was a homosexual (a revelation which seemed to come as no great surprise to her, reportedly).
During his time at Bletchley Park, Alan was regarded as something of an eccentric (referred to by his coworkers as “The Prof”), and was an avid athlete as well. He ran long distances to help relieve stress, and even tried out for the 1948 Olympics.
Turing moved to London after the war, where he worked for the National Physical Laboratory. There he made contributions to the design of the ACE (Automatic Computing Engine), and developed the first design of a stored-program computer.
Among Alan’s many other accomplishments to mathematics and science is the Turing Test, which sets the standard by which artificial intelligence can be defined. Turing suggested that if a computer could not be told apart from a human being by an interrogator, it might be considered intelligent. Versions of the Turing Test are still in active use today, such as the CAPTCHA test, which is intended to determine whether a user is a human or a computer.
Alan was also interested in mathematical biology, and in the expression of patterns and shapes in the growth and development of plants, feathers, hair follicles, etc. He published “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis” in 1952, which is still considered a relevant and seminal work today.
Conviction for Indecency
Turing lived during an era where homosexuality was illegal. In 1952 he began a relationship with a younger man named Arnold Murray, whom he had met in December of that year. In January Turing’s house was burgled by an acquaintance of Murray’s, and Alan reported the break-in to the police. In the course of the investigation he admitted his relationship with Murray, and both were charged with gross indecency.
Turing was given the choice between imprisonment and probation, and he accepted the latter, but this was conditional upon “chemical castration” through a year’s worth of injections of estrogen, which resulted in impotence and other physical changes.
Alan continued his work while enduring these treatments “with good humor,” but remained defiant in his belief that homosexuality should not be a criminal offense. His security clearance was removed as a result of his conviction, however, and this prevented him from continuing his cryptographic work for the British government.
Death and Controversy
Turing died on June 7, 1954, at the age of 41. His body was found by his housekeeper the next day, with a half-eaten apple beside his bed. The cause was determined to be cyanide poisoning and the death was labeled as a suicide, but this explanation remains controversial.
The apple was never tested for poison, and Turing often did experiments with cyanide at home, so his death could potentially have been accidental. He was reportedly not despondent, and had even made a list of tasks to complete in the following week. On the other hand, Alan was a fan of the fairy tale Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs – particularly the part about the poisoned apple – which lends more credence to the idea that he would select that particular method of suicide. Speculation on the issue still continues.
Alan Turing has received numerous posthumous tributes and accolades or had them named for him – including the Turing Award, which is given annually by the Association for Computing Machinery. This honor is considered to be the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in the computing world.
Turing has also been honored in films (most recently The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch), on postage stamps, and with many statues and plaques honoring his achievements and the places where he lived and worked. He is widely regarded as the father of computer science, and in 1999 was named by Time magazine as one of the “100 Most Important People of the 20th Century.” The publication noted that “The fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine.”
In August of 2014, following a process of petitions and legislative efforts that encompassed several years, the Queen issued an official pardon of Turing’s conviction for gross indecency. The pardon was based partly on his great contributions to the war effort, and on the premise that his actions should never have been a crime to begin with.
Several readers picked up on the fact that Turing was involved with the government and the military, although he did not serve as a soldier. He was a key figure in World War II, which may account for many readers receiving images of Nazis, planes, and similar themes.
Many also correctly observed that Turing died young, and that he was gay and felt required to hide his orientation in certain areas of his life (although he was relatively open about it among his friends). This struggle, combined with his conviction and forced “treatment” for homosexuality were surely troubling for Alan, and possibly even resulted in his suicide. This may be why some people perceived him as having a darker character than he actually did, and mentioned the deep sadness he must have felt as a result of everything he went through.
Another common and accurate theme in your comments was the fact that Turing was highly intelligent, interested in science and computers, and had a very intense sort of personality. Some feel that he may have shown traits of Asperger’s syndrome, which might have accounted for some of his eccentricities.
I was particularly interested in Erica Miller’s visions of a computer, rainbow, and apple in association with Alan. These are all images that tie in with his work, his sexual orientation, and his possible suicide by poisoning an apple. In fact, there’s an incorrect rumor that the Apple computer logo is based on the story of Turing’s suicide – Steve Jobs reportedly insisted that it was not, but added “God, we wish it were.”
Kudos also to Nan and Michelle, who both accurately noted that Turing was wrongly accused of and punished for something he should not have been. Susan’s comments were also very close to the mark, so congratulations to her as well!
As always, well done to everyone who had a go at this – there were some really amazing hits and comments this time around! I’m already looking forward to the next experiment, which will be posted in the near future.
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