In 1954 the world lost the legend that was Alan Turing, he was just 41 years of age but he had already accomplished so much. This coming Saturday, on June 23rd, Turing would have turned 100 years old and all over the world people are paying homage to the man whose genius paved the foundations of modern computing.
It is incredibly difficult to summarize Turing’s work, as so much of what he did was of great significance, sometimes he is called a mathematician, or a computer scientist, or a logician or a cryptanalyst – the truth of it is that he excelled in all of these subject areas.
Whilst at King’s College, Cambridge, Turing published a seminal paper in 1936 on the subject of Computable Numbers. This paper introduced two concepts, ‘algorithms’ and ‘computing machines’. The introduction of these concepts are part of the reason that Turing is widely referred to as the father of computer science and his work still has a significant role in the industry – nearly 60 years after his death.
1936 was also the year that the infamous Turing Machine was conceived. The Turing Machine was an abstract device that is used to demonstrate the logic of computer algorithms and show what is capable of being computed. It works by scanning symbols on an infinite strip of tape and interpreting them according to a table of rules. The Turing Machine is widely believed to be the first example of ‘intelligent machinery’ and helped computer scientists understand the limits of mechanical computation. To commemorate his centenary Jeroen van den Bos and Davy Landman built a working Turing Machine from a LEGO Mindstorms NXT robotics kit!
But Turing didn’t just make lives easier with his computing breakthrough, he saved them too. During WWII he worked for the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) at Bletchley Park, the UK’s code-breaking centre. During his time at GCCS he was responsible for German naval cryptanalysis and also devised numerous techniques which were integral in the decoding of German ciphers. One of his most famous methods was the ‘bombe’ – an electromechanical machine which located settings for the infamous Enigma machine. Turing’s aptitude for code-breaking was legendary and his significant contribution was one of the reasons that the Allied forces managed to defeat Hitler’s Nazis.
After the war, Turing went to work at the National Physical Laboratory where he created one of the world’s first designs for a stored-program computer – the ACE. He then went on to join Max Newman’s Computing Laboratory at Manchester University where he was integral to the development of the Manchester computers. Later on he became interested in mathematical biology and wrote an important paper on the chemical basis of morphogenesis.
Turing achieved so much academically, but it wasn’t all plain sailing for him. Turing was homosexual and because it was illegal in the UK at the time, the man who should have been a hailed a national hero was actually forced to face a criminal charge for his sexuality in 1952. Turing only managed to avoid a prison sentence by agreeing to chemical castration. This cruel and inhumane treatment meant that he was injected with female hormones and friends and colleagues said he was never himself after it.
In 1954, Turing died from cyanide poisoning. This great man was just 41-years of age.
An inquest ruled that he had taken his own life, however his mother and several others believe he had accidentally ingested the cyanide. Turing’s mother pointed to the fact that he had sometimes been lackadaisical in the way he stored chemicals he was working with. There was a bitten apple by his bedside, which many theorized was left there intentionally because Turing had always been a fan of the fairytale Snow White but it was never tested to see if it contained cyanide.
In 2009, after a high profile internet campaign, the then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology for the way the British government had treated Turing after the war.
Who knows what else Turing could have achieved if his life had not ended so tragically early.
Below is a list of the main events put on to commemorate Turing’s many achievements on what would have been his 100th birthday:
How The World Computes – CiE:2012 Turing Centenary Conference
University Of Cambridge, UK
18 -23rd June 2012
This conference is being put on to celebrate the massive impact that Turing had on mathematics, computing, computer science, informatics, morphogenesis, philosophy and the wider scientific world.
On the final day of the conference, Turing Award recipient Professor Leslie Valiant will speak at the morning session and the afternoon will be a social occasion for Kings College members and CiE 2012 participants.
Codebreaker – Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy
British Science Museum, UK
June 21st 2012 – June 2013
Turing was renowned for his brilliant work as a codebreaker during WWII and this extensive exhibition features the German Enigma machines and parts of the Bombe machine that Turing devised to crack codes. It will also feature the Pilot ACE computer – which embodies Turing’s ideas for a universal programmable computer and several other significant items that Turing worked on.
Turing 100 – Turing Centenary Conference
Manchester University & Manchester City Hall, UK
22nd – 25th June 2012
This conference will feature several high profile guest speakers who were inspired by Turing and will be chaired by Rodney Brooks and Sir Roger Penrose. It will include a presentation of awards to the winners of the JTF Turing Centenary Research Fellowship and Scholar Competition.
Manchester Walks – Alan Turing Centenary Tribute Walk
Manchester Museum, UK
23rd June 2012
This walk to honor the life of Alan Turing begins at Manchester Museum with a reception at 11am, it will end at Sackville Park at the life-size statue of the legendary genius.
UK Premier of The Creator
Cornerhouse, Manchester, UK
6.30pm, 23rd June 2012
This experimental film by renowned artist Al & Al traced the trials and tribulations faced by a man who is now referred to as master of modern mathematics and the father of computer science, but for whom life was not always so easy. The film looks at the tragic day where Turing died, when it was believed he ingested an apple laced with cyanide and touches on the myth of Snow White, a fairytale which Turing himself loved.
Bletchley Park, UK
June 23rd 2012
This one day event promises fun for all the family and is a great way to teach youngsters about Turing’s legacy. Much of the day will center around Turing’s Imitation Game and there will be a special competition for members of the public to try and guess machine from human and male from female with the best judges in line to win some brilliant prizes.
Below are some of my favorite Alan Touring videos:
Breaking the Code: Biography of Alan Turing (Derek Jacobi, BBC, 1996)
Lecture 12.3: The Amazing Alan Turing – Richard Buckland UNSW 2008
Prof Jim Al-Khalili – Alan Turing: Legacy of a Code Breaker
The Enigma Secret
A Turing Machine – Overview
Turing Machine (Via Wiki)
Alan Turing: why the tech world’s hero should be a household name (Via BBC)
The Alan Turing Homepage (Via Turing.org)