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Monthly Archives: November 2013

Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy

British Science Museum, London


The Thin White Duke may be stealing the headlines, but as CyberTalk discovers, he’s not the only show in town…


Walking along the South Kensington underpass, connecting the Underground station with London’s museum district, this summer you notice the faces of two, very different, British icons covering the Victorian brick walls. It is of no doubt that one dominates the other – his flame red hair contrasting sharply against his pale, impeccably white skin while his piercing, ice blue stare follows you up and down the crowded tunnels. This is David Bowie, resplendent in his iconic “Aladdin Sane” attire, driving visitors towards “David Bowie Is…” at the Victoria & Albert museum.


The second is far more reserved, almost apologetic in comparison. A single monochromatic image of a man many of those passing do not even recognise. His hair is immaculately tidy; his eyes gaze off into the distance as if in deep thought. This is Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, promoting “Codebreaker” at the British Science Museum.


Whilst both exhibitions cover the life and work of their protagonist, in many ways they reflect the personalities of their subjects also. Bowie, a unique and ubiquitous influence on popular culture, is bold, radical and enigmatic. Likewise, his exhibition has filled thousands of column inches and crams its vast space with towering video screens, outlandish costumes and intricate, in-depth details of a career spanning almost five decades.


By contrast “Codebreaker” is more condensed, more understated and yet equally as absorbing. Centred around the rebuilt Pilot ACE computer, reconstructed precisely to Turing’s original design, it tells the story of, not only the man himself, but also that of computing as a whole in six distinct sections, allowing visitors to move around at their own leisure. Though this means that objects and stories are not always presented in chronological order, the exhibition is still able to expertly weave key moments of Turing’s life with the impact they had in his thinking and scientific career, providing a fully rounded view of his personality, views and the events that shaped them.


In addition to the ACE computer, the exhibition holds a number of artefacts central to the story of computing. Alongside early calculating machines from the late 1930’s and the wreckage of a 1950s Comet jet aircraft lie a number of original Enigma machines, including U-Boat and early military decoders as well as one on loan from the private collection of (as the caption below states) “the musician and film producer, Sir Michael Jagger”, proving there are some people whose achievements eclipse even Jumping Jack Flash himself.


Unlike his counterpart across the road, very little remain of Turing’s personal belongings. However, on display here, are a collection of heart breaking letters from Turing to the mother of his close friend, Christopher Morcom, who died tragically aged 18 from tuberculosis. Here Turing demonstrates not only his intense feelings and personal beliefs but also the first concepts about the nature of thinking which will be fundamental to the future developments of artificial intelligence.


The most striking exhibit of all, however, comes when you venture into section 5, “A Matter of Life and Death”. Here Turing’s work on morphogenesis – growth and patterns in plants and animals – on one side is painted in stark contrast on the other with a small bottle of oestrogen pills and a solitary piece of paper, detailing the findings of Turing’s post-mortem examination and its conclusion of suicide by cyanide poisoning. Together they provide a saddening vision of the abhorrent treatment Turing was subjected to in his final years. It is a powerful display which once again combines in a unique way his personal life with his scientific insights, and let us fully appreciate the extent of how important his thinking has been.


“Codebreaker” has been a critical success for the British Science Museum and its curator David Rooney and rightly so. The exhibit skilfully pieces together the history of one of this Britain’s finest minds and the many areas of research he influenced in a relatively small space, providing just enough interest and detail to enthral both keen enthusiasts and those with only a passing interest alike.


“Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy” was a free exhibition at the British Science Museum to celebrate the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth.


Author:  Andrew Cook, SBL


All opinions are those of the Author and not those of SBL as a whole

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