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Sweatpants & Culture | Alan Turing’s One-hundred and Fifth Birthday

By Jessica Grey

Thanks to the official apology from then-Prime Minister Brown, the pardon from Queen Elizabeth II, and—of course—a film boasting more than one A-list cast members, Alan Turing is finally gaining some wider recognition among folks that aren’t expertly studying cryptography or computer engineering. Turing, though best known for codebreaking and his universal machine, was fascinated with several fields of scientific inquiry: physics, quantum mechanics, chemistry (cue foreboding “duh-duh-DUHN”), neurology, and biology. A scientist, engineer, mathematician, progenitor of morphogenesis, Olympic-level runner, cryptographer, and a gay man, Turing was in so many ways a man before his time.

I’m afraid that the following syllogism may be used by some in the future.

Turing believes machines think
Turing lies with men
Therefore machines do not think

Yours in distress,
Alan

On this day, one-hundred and five years ago, Alan Turing was born in an affluent London neighborhood. Alan was Julius and Ethel Turing’s second child. Julius Turing held a positon with the Indian Civil Service (because colonialism), so he and Ethel spent most of Turing’s childhood bouncing between England and India, leaving Alan and his elder brother in the care of acquaintances.

Turing began exhibiting signs of the powerhouse he was packing in his brain pan during his first years of school. His fascination with science and mathematics was not entirely seemly, though, and was often discouraged by the time he found himself enrolled at the Sherborne School as a teenager. At Sherborne, a quality education was defined by studies of the classics; science was seen as a lesser pursuit. Undaunted by the lack of encouragement, Turing resolved to study those subjects he was most taken with on his own. It was his friendship with his “first love,” Christopher Morcom—another Sherborne student—that encouraged him to strive for academic success. After Morcom’s death from tuberculosis, Turing wrote to Christopher’s mother: “I know I must put as much energy if not as much interest into my work as if he were alive, because that is what he would like me to do.”

And it appears that is exactly what Turing did. After graduating from Sherborne, he began studying at King’s College, Cambridge and earned honors in mathematics, eventually being elected a fellow thanks to his dissertation proving the central limit theorem (though, it had actually already been proven.) After Cambridge, Turing traveled stateside for doctoral study under Alonzo Church at Princeton University.

Upon returning to Cambridge, he was recruited by the Government Code and Cypher School to work at Bletchley Park on cryptanalysis of the Enigma machine that was being used by Nazi Germany to encrypt communications. Polish cryptographers, having learned the wiring of the machine’s rotors, had managed to decrypt some German communications, but the process was tenuous and would be thwarted if the Germans added any additional rotors to the mix (which they did, in 1940). Turing’s approach, instead, was pretty much solely based on statistics; that approach contributed so significantly to the field of cryptography that two papers of his papers—The Application of Probability to Cryptography and Paper on Statistics of Repetitions were not made public until five years ago. His contributions to decrypting German communications is thought to have shortened the duration of the war by years and saved millions of lives; though his work remained secret for a long time, he was awarded the OBE by King George VI for his service.

Turing was a genius. He was also an avid runner (though, his form was decidedly awful). While working at Bletchley Park, he was known to run the forty miles into London when he had high-level meetings to attend. A few years after the war’s end, he actually tried out for the 1948 British Olympic team—though, he was reportedly injured at the time, he ran the tryout marathon only eleven seconds slower than the silver medalist’s time at the Olympic games. When he wasn’t making “a terrible grunting noise” while passing fellow runners, he was working at the National Physical Laboratory designing the automatic computing engine (ACE), though he did not participate in building the pilot ACE—it ran its first program in May 1950.

In 1948, he was appointed to a position as reader in Victoria University of Manchester’s maths department and, later, became the Deputy Director of the Computing Laboratory. While working on software for the Manchester Mark 1 (one of the first stored-program computers), he continued working with more abstract concepts in mathematics, eventually bringing him to mulling over the idea of artificial intelligence. This led him to develop what is known as the Turing test: he proposed “the imitation game,” wherein a someone would have to determine whether or not they are communicating with a human or a computer; if that person could correctly guess less than fifty percent of the time, the computer could be said to be a “passable simulation of a human being” and, therefore, intelligent.

Tangentially related fun fact: the CAPTCHAs that websites employ to make sure you are not a robot is actually a reverse Turing test.

In 1951, Turing’s focus swung toward mathematical biology, specifically morphogenesis. His one and only published work in biology “The Chemical Basis for Morphogenesis” (1952) remains relevant and has been used by many biologists to explain the morphology of any number of species.

1952, as it turns out, was an eventful year for Turing, marked by high highs—like his theory of morphogenesis—and low lows—specifically, his arrest and conviction on the charge of “gross indecency.” His home was robbed by an acquaintance of Turing’s lover and, in the course of the investigation, their sexual relationship came to light. Homosexual acts—particularly, homosexual act between men—was still a criminal offense. Turing was given the choice to go to jail or accept chemical castration. He opted for the diethylstilbestrol treatment. Harrowing though the experience had to have been—I mean, really, what a gross violation of human rights—, Turing was reported to have been in good spirits. A fact that does not line up with the coroner’s explanation for Turing’s death in 1954: he was found dead in his bed of cyanide poisoning—it was ruled a suicide. He was forty-one years old. Evidence suggests, though, that the coroner may have been rash in his conclusion and that Alan Turing may have died as the result of an accident: he routinely ran chemical experiments in a tiny spare bedroom in his home, often using cyanide (yeah… that’s what the foreboding “duh-duh-DUHN” was about).

In 2009, after a petition was started by a British programmer, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a formal apology and released a statement owning the state’s treatment of Turing as “appalling” and “unfair.” After substantial—and often unproductive—fighting in Parliament to pass a bill that would posthumously pardon Turing, Queen Elizabeth II, under the royal prerogative of mercy, signed a pardon for Turing’s conviction on Christmas Eve of 2013. In 2016, Parliament, in what is known as the Alan Turing law, extended that retroactive pardon men similarly convicted of indecency for having sexual relationships with other men.

Given all the things he did accomplish in his short forty-one years, can you even imagine what wonders he might have helped to illuminate? Or what kind of reaction he would have had to a Commodore 64?! Or developments in quantum physics? Despite being taken from this place too soon—intentionally or otherwise—, Alan Turing has had a lasting and dramatic impact on life as we know it (…she says, typing this up on a computer, so that it may be posted on the internet).

Happy Birthday, Alan Turing! And many, many millions (billions?) of sincere thanks.

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