Thank You, Alan Turing

Alan Mathison turing 1912-1954

Alan Mathison Turing 1912-1954

Who is Alan Turing, and why should you care?

If the name sounds familiar but you’re not sure why, you may have heard it in the news recently. The British government issued a full, official apology to him on September 10th 2009 – over fifty five years after he died. What did they apologise for? Why so long after his death? Why is a man who died decades before the first video game featuring on a gaming website?

Alan Turing was born June 23rd 1912, in London. His incredible mathematical skills were recognised from an early age, and Turing went on to put these skills to use in ways that would make him one of the most important – though not necessarily famous – figures of the twentieth century. After graduating from King’s College in Cambridge with a distinguished degree in 1934, and being elected a fellow there in 1935, he went on to write papers and develop theories that played a vital role in shaping the world we live in today.

One of his most important works was the paper “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem”, submitted in 1936. This doesn’t sound like thrilling reading, but if he hadn’t written it, you may never have had the chance to use the computer you’re reading this on. It was based on the work of one Kurt Gödel, which Turing essentially improved, rewrote, and replaced. The result was the proposition of what came to be known as Turing machines – abstract computing machines capable of dealing with absolutely any mathematical computation. In short, the first model for the modern computer, and the beating heart of all modern computer science and development past and present.

Never mind Halo, Mario and LittleBigPlanet; Turing’s work eventually led to lifesaving hospital machinery, space travel, the internet, mobile phones, and basically life as we know it today. Incredibly however, that’s not the end of his contribution to the development of human history.

The Alan Turing Memorial, Sackville Park, Manchester

By the time the Second World War had broken out, Turing was working at the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS). This is where vital work was carried out to decrypt German coded messages, including those of the infamous ‘Enigma’ machine. This work was of course very much a team effort, but it was the bombe machine Turing invented (based upon a similar machine, the bomba, invented by Polish cryptanalysts) that sped up the work immensely. These ‘bombe’ machines were decrypting over 84,000 messages a month by the end of 1942. He did much more cryptanalysis work besides, and received a well earned OBE in 1945.

His contribution to the genesis of the modern computer means that he is, in part, indirectly responsible for the hundreds (possibly thousands) of video games that turn the second world war into a form of casual entertainment. Quite what he would have made of this is anybody’s guess.

Turing did not – seemingly could not – sit idle after the war. Amongst the apparently endless work, research and papers that he devoted himself to, was exploration of the idea of artificial intelligence. He almost single handedly laid down the foundation for work in the field of artificial intelligence, by giving the world in 1950 what is now called the ‘Turing test’. This test, in essence, proposed that a machine could be said to have intelligence if it was capable of fooling a person into thinking they were communicating with another human being.

So, it is fair to say that Alan Turing was a man of no little worth, who remains to this day a giant in the fields of computer science and cryptanalysis. The end to his story is not a happy one, however. It ends in persecution, humiliation, and tragedy. This is because of one fact that I have not yet mentioned.

Alan Turing was gay.

A bombe machine

A bombe machine

Homosexual sex was illegal in England in all circumstances at the time, and was not decriminalised until 1967. During a police investigation in 1952, in which Turing was the victim of a housebreaking, he admitted to having previously engaged in a sexual act with one of the men who committed the crime. They were both tried for ‘gross indecency’ and upon conviction, Turing was offered a choice: a prison term, or chemical castration. He chose chemical castration.

So it was that arguably the most important individual in the cracking of the code of the Enigma machine was convicted for being gay, and given oestrogen injections over the course of a year. There are conflicting reports, but it seems likely that the oestrogen course caused him to develop gynecomastia, whereby men grow breasts. As if all this were not punishment and humiliation enough, he also had his government security clearance revoked; as homosexuals were seen as extremely vulnerable to blackmail.

Alan Turing died 7th June 1954 aged just 41, and his body was found the following day. Cause of death was determined to be cyanide poisoning, and a half eaten apple lay by the body. It is widely believed that Turing laced the apple with cyanide and ate it, thereby committing suicide (this was the official verdict). As nobody seems to have witnessed Turing’s last moments of life, and the apple was never tested for traces of cyanide, it is impossible to be one hundred percent certain of this (his mother always maintained that he did not intentionally take his own life); but it seems a perfectly plausible explanation. Seemingly lending credence to this idea, is the fact that it is well known he had a fascination with the story of Snow White. His mother believed his death to be accidental however, and there are conspiracy theories regarding an assassination.

In early August this year, computer scientist John Graham – Cumming submitted a petition to the 10 Downing Street website calling on the government to issue a public posthumous apology to Alan Turing for the way he was treated. Following a flood of signatures, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology to Turing on behalf of the British government on 10th September 2009. The apology might have seemed rather more sincere and meaningful had it come rather sooner, and without any prompting.

Nonetheless, Turing of course deserves an apology. More than that, he deserves a display of gratitude. Gratitude for making such a huge leap toward the computer technology of today. Gratitude for being one of the most important individuals in the defeat of the Nazis. I have neither the writing skill nor the depth and breadth of knowledge required to do Turing justice here. I recommend you look into his life and work via the links below. If you have a site or blog of your own, give him and his legacy a mention, however brief.

Thank you, Alan Turing.

Research Patrick G; Words Luke K

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/philip-hensher/philip-hensher-the-best-way-to-apologise-to-alan-turing-1786888.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Turing

http://www.turing.org.uk/turing/

http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Mathematicians/Turing.html

http://www.alanturing.net/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/turing_alan.shtml

http://www.greggore.com/dln021203.htm

http://anaj.wordpress.com/2007/08/03/origins-of-the-apple-logo-or-why-alan-turing-died/

http://www.pamshouseblend.com/diary/12920/the-man-the-apple-logo-salutes-to-alan-turing-gets-apology-from-british-prime-minister

http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/001143.html

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

9 comments

  1. KrazyFace /

    I knew I’d heard the name before and recognise him after reading this, but I had no idea he’d suffered so much because of his sexuality. It seems unfair that someone who has contributed so much to our modern day living could be treated in such a way beause of something so trivial.

    I tip my hat to you sir Alan!

  2. Patrick G /

    Alan change the world so many times for the better but it was the ignorance of some people that lead to his untimely dead.

    Thank you Alan for everything you did.

  3. That was a really awesome piece man, the best thing I’ve read on the internet in a while 🙂

    Turing was a genius, it is so sad that his life was cut short under such aggrieves circumstances.

    Thank you for paying tribute to him, I’ll be sure to link people to your article, everyone should know about his life and work.

    Regards 🙂

    • Patrick G /

      Thanks Tom we just want everyone to know about Alan’s contritubed to the world and how much we owe him.

  4. I’m a computer science graduate and all the books we studied refer to computers as Turing machines. We also studied the Turing test.
    I really didn’t know that the guy was gay!!
    Man, had he lived longer he would have contributed more to science.

    I am homophobic myself, but the fact that this genius was treated that way is really shameful.

  5. Stalker /

    All the blame goes to f….. Religion/church and pro-church government.

    Shame on you church…Shame… for what have you done to great scientific minds and what you are still trying to do with humanbeigs.

  6. madhatters13 /

    A great tribute there. It’s a great shame that a man who contributed so much to our modern way of living and the technology we take for granted these days was treated in such a horrible way because of his sexuality.

    A huge thank you to you, Mr Alan Turing for all of your work.

  7. Enjoyed examining this, very good stuff, thankyou .

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