As The Imitation Game continues to win fans and plaudits, and critics slyly nudge one another and hold pretend Academy Awards whenever Benedict Cumberbatch delivers an interview on the subject of the film’s subject, Alan Turing, we present a little light background reading on a very particular British genius.
To start with the basics, Alan Turing was a scientist and mathematician charged with the responsibility to help the Allies crack the transmission codes used by the Germans, as encrypted in their Enigma machines, during World War II. His team developed a machine capable of breaking the code at speed, thus allowing the Allies to defeat the Germans at sea. He also created the first programmable computing machine—that is, not one built for one specific purpose.
In 1952 Turing was prosecuted under British anti-homosexuality laws and chose chemical castration rather than go to prison. He died in 1954 of cyanide poisoning, his death was ruled as suicide by a subsequent inquest.
His was a singular talent
While there were a couple of figures of note in Alan’s family—his uncle had written a book on fly fishing under the name H. D. Turing and he was related to the physicist George Johnstone Stoney, his obsession with science was something he undertook on his own, against the express wishes of several of his carers during his childhood years (including his headmaster at Sherborne School, who said “If he is to be solely a Scientific Specialist, he is wasting his time at a Public School”). Consequently Alan’s education came out of his drive to learn, inspired by stepping stones like the primer Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know and, later, his physics teacher Henry Gervis.
He was athletic
Far from being the stereotypical weedy bookworm, Turing was partial to a spot of exercise. While attending Kings College, Cambridge in the early 1930s Alan found time amid his studies to take part in the traditional college rowing club, and often relaxed by taking a run or going sailing. And when he was due to report for his first day at Sherborne School, he took the cross-channel ferry from his parents’ house, and then cycled from 63 miles Southhampton to Sherborne as there were no trains, thanks to the General Strike. This continued after the war, when he frequently ran to scientific meetings rather than take public transport, and could have represented Britain in the 1948 Olympic Games, had he not suffered an injury.
He created modern computers
Much of Turing’s work sought to bring the theories of physics into the practical realm, which meant reducing human mental processes down to a list of tasks, like a recipe for thought. This (broadly) is what the Turing machine is, a individual algorithm for processing information, which can be carried out mechanically. The Universal Turing Machine is a device that can perform any of these sets of instructions. So the Turing Machine can be thought of as a computer program and the Universal Turing Machine as the computer itself.
He invented the Turing test
This is (loosely put) a way to demonstrate exactly how closely a machine’s behavior mirrors that of a sentient being. And the way to do this is for a human and a machine to interact with a third party, a judge, using just text to communicate. If the judge cannot reliably spot which is which, the machine has passed the test. While not without criticism, the Turing test is one of the founding principles in the development of artificial intelligence.
The machine that cracked the Enigma code was called Victory
In The Imitation Game, Turing names his code-breaking machine Christopher after his childhood friend Christopher Morcom. Morcom was more than a close friend: he was an ally in science, so his death in 1930 from Bovine Tuberculosis was a profound shock and a major turning point in Turing’s life. Speaking at the time, Turing’s housemaster tried to reassure the boys, saying, “We cannot tell why Chris Morcom should have suffered a death like this, but there is a reason. Maybe it was to save him from a life of pain or illness; maybe it was to help some of you in some way, for a friend like that can often by his death do more to influence others even than by his life.”
Subsequently the school hosted the Christopher Morcom Prize for Science, sponsored by his family, which Turing won in 1930 and 1931. The prize is still awarded annually. However, Turing’s original code-breaking machine (built with W. G. Welchman) was called the Bombe, and the first version they got working was called Victory.
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