Alan Turing was born on June 23, 1912 — a date whose 100th anniversary will be upon us shortly. You can find out exactly how many days away it is at the top of each blog entry. Turing committed suicide on June 7, 1954.
In his brief forty-one years he invented or laid the foundations for much of the modern world. He didn’t do it alone, but it’s probably not going too far to say that things might well not have turned out the way they did at the time that they did without him.
His contributions have two major aspects.
First, Turing was a groundbreaking mathematician. During World War II he worked at the codebreaking facility at Bletchley Park and was instrumental in breaking the German Enigma code, a feat which allowed the Allies to have direct, timely, undiluted, and voluminous access to German orders and intelligence. This feat is largely credited with resulting in the Allied victory in the north Atlantic and with significantly shortening the war.
The most commonly cited estimate is that it hastened Allied victory by about two years, saving thousands — possibly hundreds of thousands — of lives on both sides of the conflict. Consider two more years of the final solution being executed in concentration camps. Then add to that two more years of submarine warfare, of the war on the eastern front, of war in the Pacific, of war in North Africa, and on and on. How many people alive today would never have even been born in this scenario? How much more suffering would have resulted and how much more of the world’s resources would have been wasted?
Turing’s war work would have been enough accomplishment for anyone, but he has a second major area of accomplishment in which he changed the world you and I occupy at this moment.
Turing was the first person to develop the theory underpinning the universal programmable computer, meaning a computer that can be applied to any type of computational task rather than being a one-trick pony. This is an adaptable computation device whose task can be altered at will by adjustments to its programming. Limited computing devices had been conceived of or even built before, like Babbage’s difference engine or the Chinese abacus, but without Turing’s work you would not have all those things today that consist of or rely on computers. And as a side project, Turing also founded the discipline of artificial intelligence.
Imagine the world without — to take one example — the internet and all of its secondary effects. Without the online sharing of scientific information, without online commerce, without the liberating and empowering effects of blogging and smart phones (as seen recently in the “Arab spring”), and so on. Then add to that all the other computer-reliant devices and achievements you have ever used or encountered: no desktops or laptops, no computerized medical research or computer-controlled medical devices, no NASA or moon landing or consumer space flight (like Virgin Galactic), no GPS, no Hadron Collider. Hell, no Grand Theft Auto.
Think about that as you read this on your laptop or iPhone.
Maybe someone would have worked out the same theoretical underpinning Turing did — probably they would have. On the other hand, maybe they would have worked it out in the 1980s instead of the 1930s and here in the 21st century we’d still be using paper punch cards to program our computers (as I did in high school in the 1970s).
(Just to make us ordinary mortals feel even more inferior, Turing was also a world-class athlete, a long distance runner who almost ended up competing in the 1948 Olympics.)
Turing was also gay, an orientation about which he was (as it turns out) dangerously open. Homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom during his life, and in the early 1950s Turing was charged criminally for having engaged in gay sex (to be clear, this was consensual sex with an adult, not anything that would be criminal today). Facing a choice between prison and “chemical castration,” Turing chose the latter, which among other things resulted in his beginning to develop female secondary sexual characteristics — meaning he started to grow breasts.
His conviction also excluded him from the government technological work to which he had contributed so much and which was so central to his life. At the height of the Cold War, being gay was not only considered a crime, it was also thought to make one a security risk. The usual theory was that gay men (and, I suppose lesbians, if women were even considered in this calculation) could be blackmailed by the Soviets into revealing secrets by the Soviets threatening to reveal their shameful and stigmatized sexual orientation. Of course, blackmailing someone like Turing who was openly gay might prove difficult, but rigourous logic was never a key component in this hateful little government policy.
Two years after his conviction Turing died after eating a cyanide laced apple. The official verdict was suicide, although his mother clung to the notion that the cyanide had gotten onto the surface of the apple accidentally in the course of an experiment.
In 2009 British Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered Turing a much belated apology for the treatment he received at the hands of his government. It seemed heartfelt enough, but frankly it was far too little and fifty years too late and it only happened because the government was hounded into it by an immensely popular public petition.
June 23, 2012 — the date to which this blog is counting down — will mark the 100th anniversary of Turing’s birth. The year 2012 is being celebrated as theTuring Year, with events around the world. Once we reach the day of the centenary I anticipate that this blog will happily continue counting from the date of the first centenary into the second Turing century.
This page was last updated on: October 29, 2011