Alan Turing is “the Key Figure of Our Century,” Marvin Minsky

“A Great science fiction detective story”
Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine 

Days to Centenary:  146

On the one hand, pointing out yet again how important a role Alan Turing played in twentieth century affairs, and how large his legacy looms into the twenty-first, seems almost unnecessary now that we are in the midst of the Alan Turing Year.

He’s made it, the moment has arrived, the hoopla has begun.

On the other hand, the mere fact that it is the Alan Turing Year means that we run the risk that the celebration itself becomes the focus of our attention and that the man gets obscured in the glitz.

I don’t know how many times I have now seen a news item or a blog post about the fact that there is an Alan Turing postage stamp.  I have nothing against the postage stamp —  he certainly deserves it — but the repetition of this fact at the expense of anything else that might be said about him is a symptom of the fact that Turing may, if we are not careful, end up too much a symbol and too little an actual human being.

I don’t want to detract from any aspect of this year’s celebrations — anyone who has read this page before knows that I appreciate all of Turingdom, the official and the unofficial, whether on a great scale or on a small one, the institutional and the personal.  But at this moment, for the reasons I just gave, I want to come back to the very real man and the real-world accomplishments he realized in his short life.

In The Strange Life and Death of Dr. Turing (1992), the first voice we hear (apart from an announcer briefly quoting Turing himself) is that of Marvin Minsky, who says:

Here’s a person who discovered the most important thing in logic and he invented the concept of the stored program computer and he did these wonderful things in biology and cryptology and started artificial intelligence and ran marathons and rode bicycles and had these terrible sexual problems, but I don’t know anything about this person… here’s the key figure of our century, but I don’t know him and I wish I did.

Marvin Minsky — who is a cognitive scientist working in artificial intelligence — is an intellectual giant.  Just ask Isaac Asimov, who said of him that Minsky was one of only two people whom he, Asimov, would admit was more intelligent than he was (the other was Carl Sagan).  When Minsky says someone is the key figure of the 20th century, that’s coming from someone who is himself one of its key figures.

So Minsky’s comment portrays Turing’s legacy in its appropriate scale, but at the same time it provokes the same reaction in us that Minsky is having himself: we want to know the man, the real guy.

Marvin Minsky

Marvin Minsky

Unfortunately we can’t, not directly, but we can know him indirectly through portrayals and recollections, as in last years Channel 4 documentary, Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker.  Unfortunately that movie isn’t yet available for many of us outside the UK.  Even for those within the UK who’ve seen it, it may have left them wishing for more.

For people in either of those categories, The Strange Life and Death of Dr. Turing is conveniently available on YouTube.  The first half is embedded below. Beneath the embed is a link to the second half.

So by all means, buy one of the limited-edition first day cover stamps with the unique postmark.  I’d love one myself.  But before you do, sit down and watch the documentary and remind yourself just what the celebration’s really all about.

Part two of the film can be found here.

This entry was posted in Alan Turing Postage Stamp, artificial intelligence, Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Marvin Minsky, The Strange Life and Death of Dr. Turing. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Alan Turing is “the Key Figure of Our Century,” Marvin Minsky

  1. Howard Treesong says:

    Alan Turing was a giant. The way he was treated after the war, for something as mundane as a sexual preference, will be a blot on the reputation of Great Brittain forever.

    This man won the intelligence war for his country at a time of great peril. Just a little courtesy would have gone such a long way to express a smidgeon of the gratitude owed him.

    • Dear Howard,

      I couldn’t agree more. While Turing’s treatment by the government of the day can never be erased, a pardon from the government of today would be a step in the right directio. And if it comes I hope it will lead to pardons for all those — famous and not — who were similarly punished for something that should never have been a crime.

      If you’re a citizen of the UK and therefore eligible, and if you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to sign the petition for a pardon for Turing. There is a link to it in my post entitled “The Debate — Yes, Debate — Over A Pardon for Alan Turing.”

      Thanks for your comment and I hope we’ll see you here again.


  2. Alan J. Edwarsds, BA says:

    Yes, the channel 4 documentary did leave the viewers (myself included) asking for more. Unfortunately,as often happens with a docudrama most of the documentary bits end up on the cutting room floor. Although I am assured that a longer version is being set up for later this year. I took part in the documentary and told of my meeting AMT at the Oxford Road Happy Hunting Ground in February 1950, although to me at that time he was just another topclass marathon runner and I knew nothing about his day job. But it was good to know that I wasn’t the only homoseual who enjoyed being a sportsman and a long distance runner to boot. Like many others I do not know what the REAL AMT was like – just the bits that I have been able to piece together from the various biographical work. With most of the biographical work you need at least an “A” level in maths to even start to understand what most of the writers are saying so I haven’t got very far. Thank you for reading my comments. AJE.

    • Alan,

      Thanks for your comments, now and in the past. I appreciate hearing from someone who shared Turing’s experience of being a gay man in that particular period (and who had the good fortune of meeting him!) and it means a lot to me that you get something from this blog, so I hope you will stay in touch.

      When my novel is released later this year, I’ll email you a copy. It may or may not be your particular cup of literary tea, but I hope you will get some pleasure out of it.

      Happy Alan Turing Year!


  3. Great post and an excellent documentary – none the worse for being 20 years old. BBC Horizon documentaries are so often excellent.
    I’ve reposted this on my blog

    • Dear Ian,

      Thanks as always for coming by and for the comment. I think you’re right — apart from the quality of the image (which I’m pretty sure is also compromised by having been recorded and then uploaded to YouTube), this documentary stands up extremely well even after two decades. And thanks in particular for the mention on your blog and for helping get this doc out to yet more viewers through your repost.


  4. MichaelEdits says:

    I acknowledge some of Alan Turing’s contributions in my novel CONUNDRUM. I honestly had no idea about how badly his government treated him until after my novel was published. That makes me, in fact, even prouder of noting his scientific contributions. The other stuff obviously shouldn’t have mattered and is, as at least one commenter has noted, so minor.

    • Dear Michael,

      Thanks for your comments Michael. I look forward to checking out Conundrum and given your interest in Turing I hope you’ll come back to The Turing Centenary from time to time and comment when you feel inspired to do so.


  5. Although Turing was persecuted by the religious establishment of his day, his work may have had some spiritual motivations, and certainly has spiritual and philosophical implications:

  6. Pingback: Grossly Indecent: Blackbeard The Pirate Gets a Pardon, Alan Turing Doesn’t | The Turing Centenary

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