#27 | Short Bio: Alan Turing

Short Bio: Alan Turing


FIT IN = se encaixar. “Alan Turing’s mathematical genius and eccentric ways made it difficult for him to fit in.”
RESOURCE = recurso. “They wrote to Winston Churchill asking for more resources.”
BE CHARGED WITH = ser acusado de (um crime). “He was charged with gross indecency.”

Alan Turing

Alan Turning was born in London on June 23rd, 1912. His family was far from rich but determinedly upper-middle-class in the peculiar sense of the English class system. Alan Turing shared with his brother a childhood rigidly determined by the demands of class and the exile in India of his parents. Until his father’s retirement from India in 1926, Alan Turing and his elder brother John were fostered in various English homes where nothing encouraged expression, originality, or discovery.

Turing was a precious student, showing exceptional talent in mathematics and science. He was bored by the classical subjects such as Latin and Greek but was often committed to his own studies, such as solving mathematical problems. From the age of 13, he studied at Sherborne public school in Dorset. The first day of school coincided with the 1926 General Strike, but Turing was so keen to attend, he cycled the 60 miles to school on his own. Turing was also a good distance runner and kept up running throughout his life.

At school, his mathematical genius and eccentric ways made it difficult for him to fit in, and he was something of a loner. He made a very close friendship with a boy called Christopher Morcom. They shared an interest in maths, astronomy and science. Morcom’s death in 1930 from bovine tuberculosis hit Turing hard because he was his only close friend. During his teenage years, Turing read Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, and his notes show a profound understanding.

After Sherborne, Turing studied mathematics at King’s College, Cambridge. He received first class honours, and within a year of graduating, Turing wrote a dissertation on Central Limit Theorem – which is a component of probability theory. This led him to be elected at an unusually young age to be a fellow at King’s College.

After studying in an English public school, Cambridge turned out to be an intellectually liberating experience for Turing. He became involved in the anti-war movement of 1933 but rejected both Marxism and pacificism. At university, he enjoyed rowing and running. Turing was a keen runner and often was seen running along the river; he was known to run all the way to London for a meeting.

In 1936 Turing’s seminal paper “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Decision Problem was recommended for publication. The paper included the notion of a Universal machine which was a machine that would be able to solve any mathematical problem with the right algorithm. Later, it was called the “Universal Turing Machine,” and then the “Turing machine,” capable of computing anything that is computable. Turing’s method had profound significance for the emerging science of computing and is a central concept to modern computing. This paper has also been called “easily the most influential math paper in history”.

From 1936 to 1938, he spent time in the US at Princeton studying mathematics and cryptology, obtaining his PhD Turing had an opportunity to stay in the US with John Von Neumann but chose to return to Cambridge. Back in Cambridge, he attended philosophical lectures of Ludwig Wittgenstein, with whom he debated about the philosophical importance of maths.

From September 1938, Turing began working part-time with the British codebreaking organisation. From July 1939, Turing became involved in searching for better ways to decode Enigma messages. Turing developed a machine (called Bomb) — when the machine recognised a failed setting, it electronically moved on to the next combination. Turing developed a weighting of evidence, which enabled him to skip certain combinations, making it much quicker. Turing stated he used a combination of intuition and reasoning.

The Germans believed Enigma was unbreakable because of the huge number of possible combinations (10 to the power of 19). However, by 1940, the electromechanical machine was able to intercept and decode enigma messages. He also used statistical analysis to optimise the different possibility in the code-breaking process. Turing’s work was deemed so important to national security it was classified for 70 years.

The machine was a considerable success and gave the Allies warning about German military operations. This was particularly vital for the Atlantic War, giving warnings of u-boat attacks on convoys.  Despite the vital work, Turing’s team in Hut 8 at Bletchley Park felt frustrated they had insufficient resources. In October 1941, they wrote to Winston Churchill asking for more resources. Churchill immediately acted on their request, and they became much better resourced. By the end of the war, there were 200 Turing machines in operation.

Turing had little interest in the practical aspects of running a department; he preferred to work alone, choosing the most difficult aspects of code-breaking – often aspects that others thought impossible. Hugh Alexander was the actual leader of Turing’s Hut 8, but he was keen to reflect on Turing’s essential role.

Even after the war, the British security services wanted to keep secret the way that supposedly impregnable code machines could be broken.

Turing had a reputation for eccentricity. He dressed shabbily without a tie, giving the impression of being constantly absorbed in his mathematical puzzles and code-breaking. He could be awkward in personal relations and blunt – especially towards those he considered charlatans or status-seekers. Amongst his colleagues, he was known as ‘Prof’, and his eccentricities included wearing his gas mask while cycling to avoid hay fever.

In 1941, Turing proposed marriage to Hut 8 colleague Joan Clarke, a fellow mathematician and cryptanalyst, but their engagement was short-lived. After admitting his homosexuality to his fiancée Turing decided that he could not go through with the marriage.

Turing moved to London in the mid-1940s, and began working for the National Physical Laboratory. Among his most notable contributions while working at the facility, Turing led the design work for the Automatic Computing Engine and ultimately created a groundbreaking blueprint for store-program computers. Though a complete version of the ACE was never built, its concept has been used as a model by tech corporations worldwide for several years, influencing the design of the English Electric DEUCE and the American Bendix G-15 — credited by many in the tech industry as the world’s first personal computer — among other computer models.

Turing went on to hold high-ranking positions in the mathematics department and later the computing laboratory at the University of Manchester in the late 1940s. He first addressed the issue of artificial intelligence in his 1950 paper, “Computing machinery and intelligence,” and devised “The Imitation Game” now known as the Turing test; the test stated a computer could be considered to ‘think’ if a human could not distinguish between the reply of a computer and a human. Over the past several decades, the test has significantly influenced debates over artificial intelligence.

Homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom in the early 1950s, so when Turing admitted to police, called to his house after a January 1952 break-in, that he’d had a sexual relationship with the perpetrator, 19-year-old Arnold Murray, he was charged with gross indecency. Following his arrest, Turing was forced to choose between temporary probation on the condition that he receive hormonal treatment for libido reduction, or imprisonment. He chose the former, and soon underwent chemical castration through injections of a synthetic estrogen hormone for a year, which eventually rendered him impotent.

Turing lost his official clearances, though he retained his job.

On June 8th, 1954, Turing’s housekeeper found him dead at the age of 41; he had died the previous day. Cyanide poisoning was established as the cause of death. When his body was discovered, an apple lay half-eaten beside his bed, and although the apple was not tested for cyanide, it was speculated that this was the means by which Turing had consumed a fatal dose. An inquest determined that he had committed suicide. It is also possible that it was not suicide but accidental ingestion from an experiment of electroplating gold onto spoons.

The legacy of Alan Turing’s life and work did not fully come to light until long after his death. His impact on computer science has been widely acknowledged: the annual ‘Turing Award’ has been the highest recognition in that industry since 1966. But the work of Bletchley Park – and Turing’s role there in cracking the Enigma code – was kept secret until the 1970s, and the full story was not known until the 1990s. It has been estimated that the efforts of Turing and his fellow code-breakers shortened the war by two years, having saved countless lives and helped to determine the course and outcome of the conflict.

Shortly after World War II, Turing was awarded an Order of the British Empire for his work.

In June 2007, a life-size statue of Turing was unveiled at Bletchley Park. A bronze statue of Turing was unveiled at the University of Surrey on October 28, 2004, to mark the 50th anniversary of his death. Additionally, the Princeton University Alumni Weekly named Turing the second most significant alumnus in the history of the school.

Turing was honored in a number of other ways, particularly in the city of Manchester, where he worked toward the end of his life. In 1999, Time magazine named him one of its “100 Most Important People of the 20th century,” saying, “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.” Turing was also ranked 21st on the BBC nationwide poll of the “100 Greatest Britons” in 2002. By and large, Turing has been recognized for his impact on computer science, with many crediting him as the “founder” of the field.

Following a petition started by John Graham-Cumming, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown released a statement on September 10, 2009, on behalf of the British government, which posthumously apologized to Turing for prosecuting him as a homosexual.

In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II posthumously granted Turing a rare royal pardon almost 60 years after he committed suicide. Three years later, on October 20, 2016, the British government announced “Turing’s Law” to posthumously pardon thousands of gay and bisexual men who were convicted for homosexual acts when it was considered a crime. According to a statement issued by Justice Minister Sam Gyimah, the law also automatically pardons living people who were “convicted of historical sexual offenses who would be innocent of any crime today.

In July 2019, the Bank of England announced that Turing would appear on the UK’s new £50 note, along with images of his work. The famed scientist was chosen from a list of nearly 1,000 candidates nominated by the general public.



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