Science

Alan Turing's Mind, Life Honored During LGBT History Month (VIDEO)

Alan Turing Remembered

June 23, 2012 marked the 100 year anniversary of mathematician and logician Alan Turing's birth. It was celebrated around the world in his honor. Alan Turing was a genius, a visionary, and a war hero. He developed a machine that cracked the German Enigma code during World War II, helping to end the war early, saving millions of lives. He has been called the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. His Turing Machine was one of the earliest models of a modern computer, illustrating the simple and brilliant logic necessary for algorithmic processing.

Alan Turing was also gay. And in post-war England, this was a crime. He was unafraid to live his life the only way he knew how, and his tragic end is a testament to his strength and character. In honor of LGBT history month, join me in celebrating the life of Alan Turing.

Earlier this year, I had the amazing opportunity to attend the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM's) Alan Mathison Turing Centenary Celebration. I interviewed giants in the computer science field about the mind and life of Alan Turing. Please take the time to watch the brief documentary. You can read a full transcript of the interviews below.

(Part 1)

WENDY HALL: He was a prodigy. I mean, he got his degree very early, became a fellow at King's College, Cambridge very early, and had a remarkable brain. And the insight, you know, he's a true--I think--a true genius.

CHRISTOS PAPADIMITRIOU: I think that Turing is one of the greatest persons who ever lived, and I don't mean scientists.

FRANCES ALLEN: He was one of the most insightful and brilliant people.

CHARLES BACHMAN: He made tremendous contributions to the British war effort, and also, indirectly to the American war effort.

JUDEA PEARL: ...and he understood the call of the hour.

CP: In human history, I think there are very few good guys who affected history more dramatically than Alan Turing.

VINT CERF: I think the most important thing about Turing, though, is to recognize the incredible breadth of his thinking and the depth of his ability to start from first principles to reason his way to some conclusion.

WH: Well, I think he's somebody that was just a brilliant brain, and could help define new fields in whichever area he went into.

CB: As a very young child he was very precocious in some of the things he did mathematically and designing experiments, but he was not a very social young boy.

FA: Probably a loner.

WH: But by all accounts he was quite a difficult person, like a lot of geeks are, you know.

FA: Pretty widely acknowledged that he gave his mother a very hard time. You know, he was not an easy person.

WH: But there's plenty of people who would call him a friend and he obviously had a rich social life.

CB: Some children kind of do things by themselves and others do things in groups. He was kind of a solitary child in the early years and only developed later, through his activities, some social skills.

VC: My favorite story is the one where a young man who knew him as a boy was describing that he was awakened one morning by somebody pounding on the door, and when he opened the door it's Alan Turing, who, by the way, was well known for running. I mean, he was a distance runner.

CB: In a time when he was working at Bletchley Park, which was about 40 miles from London, and he had a business meeting at the National Physical Laboratory in London, he would run to town for the meeting and he would run back.

VC: So dressed in his running shorts, he's holding a leaf from a Rhododendron, and he didn't have any paper and he wanted to leave them with an invitation to come to a party. And so he was writing on the Rhododendron leaf. And I thought, 'there's nothing more wonderful about that story than the ability of Alan Turing to take advantage of anything, you know, that would come to hand in order to do what he was doing.

CP: By all accounts, he was probably a very central figure in the brilliant cryptanalytic effort of the British counterintelligence.

CB: His best known contributions are those he handled working on the British Intelligence Service during World War II, when they built the machines to help decode the German Enigma code.

VC: The machine that Turing designed actually emulated the way the Enigmas worked. They used four rotors that would turn in various ways depending on what was typed on a typewriter.

CP: By creating his special-purpose computers so that they broke German codes, apparently he played a major role in the Battle of the Atlantic.

CB: And that part of his work is very practical. He took his theory and turned it into things.

VC: So what they would do is build this giant machine that pretended like it was literally many, many of these encryptors, in order to set them all at slightly different positions in the keying space, in order to see whether one of them would break the code and translate it.

WH: It can be argued that the team at Bletchley Park saved on the order of 20 million lives, because they managed to stop the U-boats, and it really quickened the end of the war.

WILLIAM NEWMAN: His work made a huge difference to the outcome of the war and certainly to the duration of the war.

JP: Many people attribute to him shortening the war by six months. I think it was more than that.

VC: So his design was extremely practical and, at the time, one of the most interesting examples of parallel computing that you would find.

JP: It's really amazing.

(Part 2)

WENDY HALL: I think he’s one of those people that lived to work. I mean that was his driving force, but of course he had, you know, a personal life and a sexual life outside of that.

CHRISTOS PAPADIMITRIOU: So Turing was homosexual and in England of the mid-19th, 20th Century. This was trouble, okay. It was explicitly a punishable offense.

VINT CERF: He was accused of practicing homosexuality, and that was considered a crime.

WH: He actually really told the police he was a homosexual. He, you know, and there’s a lot of conjecture that he really wanted to come out.

CP: Turing did his science as if he lived 50 years ahead of his time. Unfortunately he lived his personal life the same way.

CHARLES BACHMAN: When he was tried for the crime of homosexuality, he had the choice of going to prison in one sentence or to be chemically castrated, which sounds like a pretty horrible thing to happen.

CP: There was a burglary his home, and when the constable asked him, “Do you have any thoughts about who might have done it?” He said, “Yes, I suspect this person.” And he asked him, “Is he any relation of yours?” He said, “Yes, he was my lover.”

WILLIAM NEWMAN: Up until that point he was very happy, he was. He had moved to Manchester to work with my father in the mathematics department and this I think was probably his first real move away from King’s College in Cambridge where he really was at home.

CP: He had to submit to.. I’m sorry, I got emotional about that. He had to submit to hormone treatment, which had terrible transformative effects on his mind and body, and pushed him to suicide.

WH: When he was arrested and tried and found guilty, he chose--I mean this sounds appalling to us, it’s only the ‘50s--he chose chemical castration instead of going to jail.

CB: He did a lot of chemical experiments so having cyanide in the house was not unusual.

WH: That plays with your mind as well as your body, I imagine.

WN: My father was still working in Manchester and he telephoned my mother in Cambridge and I was sitting in the same room, and I could see some really terrible news was coming through.

JUDEA PEARL: Until you are in the shoes of the person, you don’t know. It could be a thousand things, a thousand things could have passed in his mind.

WH: There’s something about him liking the Snow White fairy story, fairy tale, and you know the poisoned apple that the queen eats in the fairy tale.

CP: He crafted his suicide in a way, I believe, that made it obvious to everybody that he killed, that he took his own life, except his mother who died believing that it was an accident.

WN: You know, this was a really tough time for my parents, and very distressing and sad for me. It was very confusing.

CP: I suspect that he did this deliberately and I believe this was his last brilliant construct.

WN: My name’s William Newman, and I was a friend of Alan Turing’s in the period after the war.

CP: My name is Christos Papadimitriou, and I’m a creation of Alan Turing.

JP: My name is Judea Pearl, and Alan Turing affected me indirectly by asking the questions that I was afraid to ask.

WH: My name is Dame Wendy Hall. I was one year old when Turing died but my career has been interestingly interwoven with his legacy.

JP: The question in my case was, how can we people manage to handle uncertainty so easily and so comfortably and machines can not?

VC: My name is Vint Cerf, and had Alan Turing not done what he did, I wouldn’t have programmed the first computer I put my hands on in 1960.

WH: I’m a computer scientist so clearly, you know, my career exists because of the work he did.

WN: He’s sort of like an uncle to me.

CP: Everything that I am--a scientist, a storyteller, a man who lives his life as consistently as possible--has been affected tremendously by Alan Turing.

Video produced by Christopher Sprinkle and Cara Santa Maria. Shot by Roddy Blelloch. Special thanks to Virginia Gold and the Association for Computing Machinery.

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