Alan Turing provided a rare and remarkably rich contribution to society, for which the human race will be eternally indebted. Within only 20 years between his university graduation and death in 1954, he was able to pioneer ground-breaking ideas in the fields of mathematics, philosophy, biology and, most significantly, computer science. On top of all this, he was instrumental in changing the course of World War II, preventing the deaths of millions. Yet, he was unknown in life and remained relatively unknown in death, until 1974 when details about his work at Bletchley Park were finally released.
Alan Turing was born on 23 June 1912 to Julius and Ethel Turing. He showed signs of genius from a very early age and was extraordinarily quick to learn new skills. It’s said that he taught himself to read within just three weeks. Numbers fascinated the young Turing, so much so that he developed a habit of stopping at every street light in order to find its serial number.
Turing had a varied experience with the English school system and, although his aptitude was recognised as “genius” by some teachers, he was uninterested in classical education in the curriculum, as he was fixated by science and mathematics. He also encountered bullies during his school life, and proclaimed that he learned to run fast in order to “avoid the ball.” Running would later become a dedicated pastime, which Turing found gave him for clarity of thought. He even went on to achieve world-class marathon standards, as his best time of 2:46 hours was only 11 minutes slower than the Olympic winner in the same year, 1948.
Turing began to enjoy his school life more when he moved into Sherborne Sixth Form (pictured), where he was allowed to specialise in science and mathematics. His fascination in science even led him to want to further prove the Earth’s rotation, by building a replica of the Foucault Pendulum in the dormitory stairwell.
Awarded a major scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge in 1931, Turing read theoretical mathematics and excelled, obtaining a distinction upon graduation. He was elected a Fellow of King’s College in 1935. Only a year later he presented his first paper to the London Mathematical Society.
The following years saw the pinnacle of Turing’s genius and innovation. After graduating, Turing focused his efforts on a widely known fundamental problem in mathematics, known as the Decidability Problem, a product of the work of David Hilbert, a German mathematician. In 1900, Hilbert appealed to his contemporaries to find an algorithmic system to answer all mathematical problems – a system which must be complete, decidable and consistent. These three conditions would mean that every mathematical statement could either be proven or disproven by clear steps that would reach the correct outcome every time.
Kurt Godel had already disproved Hilbert in 1931 by showing that consistency and completeness could never exist in such a system. However, the requirement of decidability (i.e. that definite steps are followed in order to prove or disprove a statement) was left unanswered.
Turing went on to solve the Decidability Problem as a result of his ideas for his famous Turing Machine. He conceived of a powerful computer that would only understand the digits 0 and 1. The idea involved an infinite tape of these numbers that would be written and read by the machine. Different sequences of numbers would lead to a variety of functions and the solving of various problems. The machine’s design was a breakthrough in that it defined and codified algorithms. In developing this heavily mathematical concept, Turing found that problems did exist that algorithmic systems couldn’t solve. This thereby proved that Hilbert’s final condition of decidability could not be obtained.
Turing, at the age of just 23, had solved a problem that had baffled experts in the field for over 30 years. His name would go down in history books and the title “genius” began to be ascribed to him once again. No one could predict, however, that the principle that Turing conceived, the Universal Turing Machine, would be inherent in the development of technology for decades to come.
After several more years of study in America, Turing was awarded a PhD from Princeton University. On September 4, 1939, the day after the declaration of war by Prime Minister Chamberlain, Turing reported for duty at the wartime headquarters of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire. It was here that Turing developed his preformed computing designs and adapted them to the field of cryptanalysis to decipher Enigma, the code used by the German armed forces to protect their radio communications.
Before Turing started work at Bletchley Park, progress on decryption had been poor, with no Enigma-coded message being successfully decoded in almost 10 months. Turing contributed crucially to the design of electro-mechanical machines (known as ‘bombes’), the first prototype of which, named Victory, began successfully decoding Enigma in Spring 1940.
By 1943, Turing’s machines were cracking an astounding total of 84,000 Enigma messages each month – two messages every minute. These operations were kept absolutely confidential, and Nazi forces were completely unaware that their strategic conversations were being read by the English Admiralty, sometimes within 15 minutes of being transmitted.
A pivotal use of this advantage was to stifle the efforts of U-boats, the prevalence of which was the only thing that Churchill said “ever really frightened” him. U-boats had destroyed 701 Allied ships and 2.3m tons of vital cargo in the first nine months of conflict alone. Turing et al. were able to significantly weaken the U-boat’s hold over the Pacific Ocean by intercepting their locations. Allied ships could therefore dodge the U-boats in the vast openness of the Pacific, allowing Allies to transport fuel, food, troops and ammunition from America to Britain.
If the U-boats had been allowed to halt the movement of this cargo, such an effective attack at Normandy would never have been possible. Without the D-Day Landings, the war could have gone on for 2 – 3 more years which, analysts say, could have meant a further death-toll of up to 21 million.
Having played a key role in the winning of the war by the Allies, Turing was later awarded the OBE for his wartime services.
In 1946, Turing was invited to the National Physical Laboratory where he designed the first stored-program computer, the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE). Turing went on to work at the University of Manchester from 1948, where he developed software for the Manchester Mark 1 computer, a truly ground-breaking piece of technology.
Meanwhile, Turing was fascinated by the potential of computer technology. His seminal 1950 article “Computing machinery and intelligence” set the philosophical world alight with the proposal that machines can, in principle, achieve a level of consciousness equal to that of humans. This sparked a debate that still rages today, and paved the way for the Artificial Intelligence movement, which works tirelessly to improve the capacity of computers with the ultimate goal of consciousness.
In 1952, Turing moved into a new area when he became enamoured with mathematics in the natural world, and pioneered the theory that the Fibonacci sequence is ubiquitous in morphogenesis (the formation of an organism’s shape). This astounded biologists, and quickly Turing established himself as a highly esteemed, revolutionary thinker in the field.
Sadly, his ground-breaking work around morphogenesis was cut short. Through most of his academic and professional life, Turing was open to his friends and colleagues as homosexual. In 1952 however, Turing began a new relationship, and this became an issue, eventually leading to his social and emotional collapse. Just weeks after his relationship with Arnold Murray began, Turing’s home was burgled. Turing naturally reported the crime to the police, who proceeded to arrest Turing and Murray on grounds of gross indecency due to their homosexuality, illegal at the time.
Turing was convicted in March 1952 and had the choice of imprisonment or probation under the condition that he underwent hormonal treatment to reduce his libido and cause impotence. He chose the latter option. Disgraced by the British judicial system and undergoing enforced treatment to reduce his masculinity, he was naturally depressed and it is widely believed that this led to his suicide in June 1954.
When the history of Turing’s legacy and contribution during WW2 became better known, public anger at his treatment grew. After a petition with thousands of signatures in 2009, Gordon Brown apologised on behalf of the Government for the “utterly unfair” way in which Turing was treated.
The Government has also recently announced its support for granting a posthumous pardon to Turing for his conviction. In October 2013, the third Parliamentary reading of the Alan Turing (statutory pardon) Bill will take place. If the bill is passed, it will help reflect public regret for the way Turing was treated and the high level of esteem in which he is now held.
Modern society is indebted to this remarkable man in more ways than we can imagine. Turing’s contributions to code-breaking in World War II were arguably instrumental in the Nazi’s defeat, preventing the deaths of millions and changing the course of history. Furthermore, his revolutionary work in computing provided the foundation for an infinite array of ever-emerging technologies which the human race will continue to rely on for many years to come.
Author: Tom Hook