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Alan Turing: Mathematical Genius, Allied Forces Hero, and Pioneer of the Computer Science Industry

In an earlier post this week, we explored the basics safety practices of National Safety Month which takes place annually in June. However, another important celebration also takes place this month–Pride Month. So in honor of the important movement celebrated this month, officially penned by Bill Clinton in 1999 in response to the Stonewall Inn protest against police persecution towards members of the lgbtq+ community, we will profile lgbtq+ community intellectual who have made substantial contributions to STEM industries.

First on the list of lgbtq+ community members, is Alan Turing–mathematical genius, Allied forces hero, and pioneer of the computer science industry.

Turing, born in London, England in 1912, began his life in highly competitive and lauded institutions of education starting with a private primary school before he attended the King’s College (now University of Cambridge) where he graduated in 1934 with a degree in Mathematics1,2. Upon graduation Turing was elected as a fellow at King’s College “in recognition of his research in probability theory” presented in a paper he titled “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem [ Decision Problem.]1

The Entscheidungsproblem was defined by mathematicians as an “effective” way for “computers” to reliably solve problems–at the time the humans who worked as mathematical clerks to manually solve problems were called computers1. Turing’s paper, which explored “the fundamental mathematical problem of determining exactly which mathematical statements are provable within a given formal mathematical system and which are not,” ultimately concluded there were no ways to reliably identify provable or unprovable problems1. Alonzo Church, another mathematician who simultaneously published his own paper with the same findings on the Entscheidungsproblem, respected Turing’s genius particularly because Turing’s paper posited that a universal computer machine “has the advantage of making the identification with effectiveness…evident immediately.1” Church invited Turing to study under his guidance at Princeton University, which Turing accepted and enrolled to earn a PhD in mathematical logic1,2.

The findings Turing and Church found individually created the Church-Turing thesis which denotes “that everything humanly computable can also be computed by the universal Turing machine.1” This was the beginning of the Turing machine, which Turing created during WWII after he returned to King’s College to complete his fellowship and enrolled in the Government Code and Cypher School in Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire1,3. Here, Turing created more than the breaking the Engima code, he also worked “a method of securely encoding and decoding telephone conversations in 1944” named "Delilah” which was later used for many digitally secure speech concepts, and which was used for the most secretive Allied communications”3.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “by early 1942 the cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park were decoding about 39,000 intercepted messages each month, a figure that rose subsequently to more than 84,000 per month—two messages every minute, day and night.1

For his work breaking the previously unbreakable Enigma code, the code German armed forces used to covertly communicate with its allies, Turing was bestowed the title of Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire1,2. His work during the war also led to later advancements in Artificial Intelligence and testing AI using the Turing Test, a test to determine if AI is thinking1,2.

 Once the war had ended, largely in-part to Turing’s efforts, Turing joined London’s National Physical Laboratory with the goal of creating an electronic computer. Turing designed a sophisticated machine, but his colleagues at the Lab had concerns about the engineering efforts necessary to manifest Turing’s machine so a lesser model was developed, costing the Lab the distinction of creating “the world’s first working electronic stored-program digital computer”1.

After this disappointment, Turing moved on to become the Deputy Director of the Computing Machine Laboratory in Manchester where he went on to “design an input-output system,… design its programming system” and write the first programming manual1.

Despite his obvious contributions to society, ability to work individually and on a team to further scientific endeavors, and general fellowship, in 1952, only seven years after the war, Turing was convicted of “gross indecency” an antiquated term for people in homosexual relationships2,3,4. Turing, convicted of having a relationship with a 19-year-old man, “was sentenced to 12 months of hormone “therapy” which involved taking harmful pills. It was previously believed that this sentence of “hormone therapy” caused Turing’s death by suicide in which he ate an apply laced with cyanide2,3,4,6. Due to this criminal conviction, Turing would be barred from ever working for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), despite his enormous contributions to the country and world5,6. Letters from Turing discovered around 2015 reveal this genius’ battle with his sexuality that support the claim that the “hormone therapy” caused Turing to take his life6. Though there can be no conclusion on the reason for his death, since he was reported to have no mental ailments at the time of his death and it is plausible he could have accidentally inhaled cyanide from a lab in his house to murder because of his advanced knowledge of cryptology, his sentence and treatment were inhumane1,6.

In 2013 Turing was officially pardoned for his “crime” by Queen Elizabeth II, four years after the British Prime Minister apologized for Turing’s “utterly unfair” treatment1. In 2016, Robert Hannigan, the Director of GCHQ, officially apologized for the treatment of Turing and others who identified as LGBTQ+ community members.

"The fact that it was common practice for decades reflected the intolerance of the times and the pressures of the Cold War, but it does not make it any less wrong and we should apologise (sic) for it,” said Hannigan. “Their suffering was our loss, and it was the nation's loss too, because we cannot know what [those] who were dismissed would have gone on to do and achieve. We did not learn our lesson from Turing. It’s vital that we leave no stone unturned to ensure that every single lesbian, gay, bi and trans person feels able to bring their whole self to work and is accepted without exception.6"

In addition to his widely-recognized work in computer science, Turing also forwarded the field of morphogenesis, a “process by which multi-celled life develops its shape as it grows.3” Turing explored this field in his 1951 paper, titled The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis, which “explored how non-uniform biological characteristics (like stripes on a zebra) could arise out of a uniform starting state in the womb.3” Turing also spearheaded the Chaos Theory, through his extension of morphogenesis into chemistry. Turing noticed that “chemical systems that are otherwise stable become unsettled by diffusion under certain circumstances – in these "reaction-diffusion" systems, diffusion clashes with individual chemical reactions leading to the apparent paradox of the overall system getting more complicated over time.3” One of Turing’s most entertainment-based inventions, still based in mathematical properties, was a program he called “Turbochamp”3. Turbochamp, stemming from Turing’s work in AI, was the first chess computer program3. You can watch Turbochamp play Turing’s friend, Alick Glennie, here.

Resources:

  1. ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA. (2020). Alan Turing. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alan-Turing.
  2. Biography. (2019, July 16). Alan Turing Biography. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/scientist/alan-turing,
  3. Clark, L. & Steadman, I. (2017, June 7). Remembering Alan Turing: from codebreaking to AI, Turing made the world what it is today. Retrieved from https://www.wired.co.uk/article/turing-contributions.
  4. LiveScience. (2019, July 15). Legendary, Persecuted Code-Breaker Alan Turing Finally Recognized for His Achievements. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/65942-turing-finally-recognized-fifty-pound-note.html.
  5. The Guardian. (2015, August 22). Letter reveal Alan Turing’s battle with his Sexuality. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/aug/23/alan-turing-letters-reveal-battle-sexuality.