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Immovably fascinated by the world; it's properties, people, conditions, sensations, irony,
and all the amazing moments which, whether by enlightenment or scarring, bring about permanent change.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

alan turing

born june 23rd 1912 in london, died june 7th 1954 in cheshire, england, age 41
mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, computer scientist
widely considered to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence

early in life, he showed signs of genius.

in 1926, at 14, he was enrolled in the famous independent Sherborne School.
His first day coincided with the General Strike in britain,
but he was so determined to attend, that bicycled alone 60+miles to the school,
stopping overnight at an inn.

alan was a talented long-distance runner, capable of world-class marathon standards.
if he was needed for high-level meetings in london, he occasionally ran the 40miles.

he was stocky, talkative, witty, scholarly,
and showed characteristics of Asperger syndrome
(an autism spectrum disorder
characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction,
alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests)

"his high-pitched voice already stood out
above the general murmur of well-behaved junior executives
grooming themselves for promotion within the Bell corporation.
then he was suddenly heard to say:
'no, I'm not interested in developing a powerful brain.
all I'm after is just a mediocre brain,
something like the president of the american telephone and telegraph company."
-andrew hodges
describing an incident which occurred in the ny at&t lab cafeteria in 1943

some of his eccentricities included;

-in the first week of june each year he would get a bad attack of hay fever,
and he would cycle to the office wearing a service gas mask to keep the pollen off.

-his bicycle had a fault: the chain would come off at regular intervals.
instead of having it mended he would count the number of times the pedals went round
and would get off the bicycle in time to adjust the chain by hand.

-he chained his mug to the radiator pipes to prevent it being stolen.

alan's first love interest was christopher morcom.
only a few weeks into their last term at Sherborne,
christopher died suddenly from complications of bovine tuberculosis
(contracted after drinking infected cow's milk as a boy).

this shattered alan's religious faith, and he became an atheist.
he adopted the conviction that all phenomena, including the workings of the human brain,
must be materialistic, but he still believed in the survival of the spirit after death.


at King's College in Cambridgem, he graduated with first-class honors in mathematics.

in WW2, he worked in britain's code-breaking center.
within weeks of arriving, he devised a number of techniques for breaking german ciphers,
including the method of the bombe,
an electromechanical machine that could decode the Enigma machine
(more effectively than the Polish bomba kryptologiczna, from which its name was derived)

"turing's most important contribution, I think,
was of part of the design of the bombe, the cryptanalytic machine.
he had the idea that you could use, in effect, a theorem in logic
which sounds to the untrained ear rather absurd;
namely that from a contradiction, you can deduce everything."
-jack good

for a time he was head of Hut 8,
the section responsible for german naval cryptanalysis.
towards the end of the war,
he developed a portable secure voice scrambler codenamed Delilah.

"the pioneer's work always tends to be forgotten
when experience and routine later make everything seem easy
and many of us in Hut 8 felt that the magnitude of turing's contribution
was never fully realized by the outside world."
-hugh alexander

in 1942, he devised a technique termed Turingery (or jokingly Turingismus)
for use against the Lorenz cipher messages
produced by the germans' new Geheimschreiber (secret writer) machine.

"he was particularly fond of little programming tricks
and would chuckle with boyish good humor at any little tricks I may have used.
-james h. wilkinson

though, alan was not directly involved in the Colossus
(the world's first programmable digital electronic computer)
he introduced the Tunny team to Tommy Flowers who (with Max Newman)
went on to build the Colossus.

alan's two papers discussing mathematical approaches to code-breaking
were of such value that they were not released to the UK National Archives until April 2012.

addressing the problem of artificial intelligence,
alan proposed an experiment which became known as the Turing test,
an attempt to define a standard for a machine to be called "intelligent".
the idea was that a computer could be said to "think"
if a human interrogator could not tell it apart, through conversation, from a human.

he suggested that rather than building a program to simulate the adult mind,
it would be better rather to produce a simpler one to simulate a child's mind
and then to subject it to a course of education.
a reversed form of the Turing test is widely used on the Internet;
the CAPTCHA test is intended to determine whether the user is a human or a computer.

in 1948, alan and D. G. Champernowne,
began writing a chess program for a computer that did not yet exist.

in 1941, he proposed marriage to Joan Clarke (Hut 8 co-worker /mathematician /cryptanalyst),
but their engagement was short-lived when he admitted his homosexuality
(Joan was reportedly "unfazed" by the revelation)
in 1952, Arnold Murray, a former lover, broke into alan's house.
he reported the crime to the police.
during the investigation, he acknowledged a sexual relationship.
homosexuality was illegal in the uk, at the time.
as an alternative to prison, alan accepted treatment of female hormones.
this conviction led to the removal of his security clearance,
and barred him from continuing with his cryptographic consultancy


june 8th 1954, alan died from cyanide poisoning.
it is speculated that the fatal dose was delivered by an apple
that lay half-eaten beside his bed (though it was not tested).
his mother argued it an accident caused by her son's careless storage of lab chemicals.
(it's been speculated that alan may have killed himself in a deliberate ambiguous way
to give his mother some plausible deniability)
david leavitt has suggested alan was re-enacting a scene
from the 1937 film Snow White, his favorite fairy tale.
pointing out that he took "an especially keen pleasure
in the scene where the Wicked Witch immerses her apple in the poisonous brew."

the apple.
forbidden love,
newton's theory of gravitation,
and the means of alan's own death.

apple computer's logo is often erroneously referred to as a tribute to alan
the bite mark a reference to his method of suicide.
the designer of the logo and the company deny this.
Steve Jobs' response was, "It isn't true, but God, we wish it were."

in his memory, there are statues, plagues, a postage stamp, a play, a BBC show, books,
university tributes, a bridge and road named after him,
and since 1966, the annual Turing Award has been the computing world's highest honor.

(statue of alan holding an apple)

quotes -

"a computer would deserve to be called intelligent
if it could deceive a human into believing that it was human."

"science is a differential equation.
religion is a boundary condition."

"a man provided with paper, pencil, and rubber,
and subject to strict discipline,
is in effect a universal machine."

“machines take me by surprise with great frequency."


tidbits from:


  1. Incredible like all off smart people ride bikes!!

  2. I saw the bombe and all the captured and recreated enigma machines when I was in England last may; I even made a video of it running, it was pretty cool...

  3. nice images and quote of Alan Turing . Thanks for sharing this with us.


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