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Frank writes: "Until relatively recently, most folks wouldn't come across Turing's name unless they had a certain kind of computational orientation."

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in "The Imitation Game." (photo: Black Bear Pictures)

Setting the Record Straight for Alan Turing

By Adam Frank, National Public Radio

10 January 15


magine, for a moment, that Albert Einstein's greatest contributions were kept secret at the highest levels of government. Imagine, for a moment, that while still relatively young, Einstein was prosecuted, shamed and driven to suicide for the inclinations of his affections. Imagine, for a moment, that in the wake of the secrecy, the shame and the suicide, you never knew Albert Einstein's name.

Seems crazy, doesn't it? In many ways, however, that narrative is the story of Alan Turing. Thankfully, it's a story that is finally getting aired in popular culture through the new film The Imitation Game.

Until relatively recently, most folks wouldn't come across Turing's name unless they had a certain kind of computational orientation. "Turing" doesn't ring the same bells as Einstein, Newton, Darwin or even Heisenberg, Watson and Crick. But, without doubt, Alan Turing should be on their list of science giants.

It's not just that Turing's work was worthy of a Nobel Prize. He went far beyond that. Turing possessed an epoch-making genius of the highest order — and his impact on human civilization is in line with the heights that kind of genius yields. That's why Turing's omission from everyone's list of super-scientists is so galling. But worse, still, are the circumstances of that omission's occurrence, driven by a confluence of two remarkable factors — an accident of history and pure narrow-minded fear.

The accident was World War II. To be more explicit, it was the fact that Turing played a decisive role in winning that war through his hyper-mega-top-secret work in cryptography. Turing's work deciphering German codes was kept utterly invisible to the rest of the world after the conflict ended. Thus, the man who helped shave two years off one of the bloodiest wars in history never became a household word (like "Oppenheimer" or "Patton" or "Eisenhower").

But the real tragedy of Turing rests with the "narrow-minded fear" part of the story. Alan Turing was gay at a time when this was a punishable crime in England. Arrested and shamed for his relationship with another man, Turing was forced into "chemical castration" in 1953. A year later, at the age of 41, Turing committed suicide.

We lost a lot in losing Alan Turing to homophobia. But to be clear, let's take a few moments to understand what he managed to accomplish when he wasn't saving western civilization from fascism.

In 1935, at the ripe age of 22, Turing devised the abstract mathematical background to define a computing machine. Now called a "Turing Machine," it would sequentially respond to input and generate output in a step-by-step (i.e., algorithmic) fashion. Turing Machines are the essence of every device with a chip in it you have ever encountered. That's why Turing stands, essentially, at the head of the line when it comes to the creation of the digital age. He is the father of all computers.

Turing's interest in "thinking machines" continued after his early studies. Part of the triumph of his work during World War II was developing electromechanical devices to crack the supposedly un-crackable German Enigma coding machines. After the war he led Britain's effort to create a true "electronic" computer, and in his later theoretical work he took the first steps toward what is now called neural-network computing.

If initiating the digital revolution were all there was to Alan Turing, that would be enough to warrant his name being universally recognizable. But Turning's genius went deeper still. Turing didn't just define computers, he defined computing in its deepest, most cosmic sense.

Turing's work developing the idea of a Turing Machine was part of larger project: defining the very limits of mathematics. It's a story that begins with the Greeks millennia ago but takes its sharp focus in 1900 with the legendary German mathematican David Hilbert. Hilbert had set the agenda for his entire field by tasking mathematicians to express all mathematics in the form of a consistent, complete and decidable "formal" system.

As philosopher Jack Copeland explains it, Hilbert's goal was transcendent:

"A consistent system is one that contains no contradictions; 'complete' means that every true mathematical statement is provable in the system; and 'decidable' means that there is an effective method for telling, of each mathematical statement, whether or not the statement is provable in the system. Hilbert's point was that if we came to possess such a formal system, then ignorance would be banished from mathematics forever."

Since mathematics is the basis of all science, what we would have — at root, at least — was a model for perfect knowledge.

But in 1931, Kurt Gödel famously proved that no formal mathematical system could be consistent and complete. Then, in 1936, it was Turing who used his abstract Turing Machines to show that decidability was impossible, too. Thus Turing (along with Alonzo Church) played a decisive role in showing that the most ancient human dream of perfect, absolute and axiomatic knowledge was exactly that — just a dream. Only a mind of the highest and most subtle understanding could have achieved such insight.

In the modern era, Turing's essential understanding of computation and knowledge has found new applications in cosmology, of all places. Many physicists have come to see the universe as a whole as a kind of giant information processing system — and have used Turing Machine concepts in the work. Thus, even fundamental physics has embraced the fundamental importance of Turing's insights.

But we lost Alan Turing at age 41 because too many people were uncomfortable with whom he was inclined to love. Think about what might have happened if he had been around to witness the dawn of the personal computer or the Internet? How different might both those revolutions have been with his input?

There is a lot of discussion these days about the need for greater inclusion in sciences. Whether it's homophobia or sexism or racism or even the ability for poor kids to get access to science education, it's become clear that biases and barriers still exist. Sometimes they are blatant and sometimes they are subtle. What Alan Turing's story shows us is just how much we stand to lose when we fail to understand that genius, or just a good scientist, can appear anywhere and in any form. your social media marketing partner


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+30 # arquebus 2015-01-10 11:19
Yes, what happened to Turing was a travesty, but to be fair he wasn't denied recognition for his part in Ultra--the breaking of the Enigma code--because he was gay. No one who worked on Ultra was given recognition for years...the whole operation was kept top secret until the 70s.

I first ran across his name and accomplishments 20 or 30 years ago. After Ultra was removed fro the top secret list, people were writing books about Bletchley House and those who worked there.
+23 # bpuharic 2015-01-10 11:33
Christians are still waging war against gays. When will they stop their evil beliefs?
+15 # Rockster 2015-01-10 11:34
Yes little bits of info gradually became available years ago but arquebus seems to be purposely avoiding the major( and valid) points of this article; * This is a very well done, emotionally impactful public drama. * it Is a tremendous and willfully stupid attitude of fear of " The Other" pointed out in his life story * Government cannot be trusted to tell the people the truth on their own. * Turing's and his coworkers genius and brave efforts need to be properly acknowledged. * world culture. Needs to respect and nurture talent wherever it's found * Homophobia is evil, destructive to all and unconscionable .
+10 # munley 2015-01-10 11:38
Thanks for posting this article. Turing was an awesome mathematician/l ogician. For those who want to struggle a bit with his universal machine, read Roger Penrose's "The Emperor's New Mind." I'm not sure what Mr. Frank is referring to when he says Tiuring added to Gödel by showing decidability was impossible. After all, the title of Gödel's paper was (in translation) "On formally undecidable propositions in Principia Mathematica and related systems." Turing tackled the problem of computability in a more far-ranging way than Gödel did. See Penrose, pp. 117-118.
+17 # 2015-01-10 11:53
I'm no math or IT major, but I've been familiar with Turing's work for at least 30 years -- there have been books and books about him. He was clearly a genius and he was clearly treated badly because of his sexual orientation -- in that time frame, acting out on one's gay preferences was illegal in the UK and pretty much every place else. Today, it is only illegal in Islamic countries and a few central African countries. Glad we moved on and will continue to try to help Muslims and some Africans to move on too.

Lee Nason
New Bedford, Massachusetts
+9 # Activista 2015-01-10 12:29
Alan Turing was genius -
Alan Turing: The Enigma
Andrew Hodges (Author), Douglas Hofstadter (Foreword, Contributor)
is great book to read and learn -
and chemical sterilization ... we consider castration of dogs in the USA to be "human treatment" - nothing changed much in "civilized" society.
+14 # Regina 2015-01-10 13:25
Alan Turing would not have been considered for a Nobel because Alfred Nobel did not include mathematics in the eligible fields. Turing should have been awarded a Fields Medal, which is comparable to a Nobel (in both prestige and money) for mathematicians.
+4 # cunegonde 2015-01-10 13:34
I agree with the sentiments of the author and those expressed in the replies: the treatment of Alan Turing due to his homosexuality was beyond shameful. However, as a purely factual matter, the author oversteps the bounds of responsible journalism in claiming that Turing committed suicide as a result of that treatment. Recent scholarship has cast doubt on whether Turing committed suicide at all, although the bulk of evidence still seems to indicate that he probably did. Even if he did, however, there is no evidence of which I am aware that he did so as a result of the shameful manner in which he was treated. We are welcome to speculate on Turing's motivations as we wish, but in the absence of evidence we should not claim that such speculations are factual.
+9 # brux 2015-01-10 14:33
If you really want to set the record straight about Alan Turing ... why not post a real picture of him instead of the actor Benedict Cumberpath?
0 # bmiluski 2015-01-13 11:25
Is there one?
+14 # Archie1954 2015-01-10 14:51
Are you sure he saved the world from fascism? It didn't seem like that for him personally! today we look around and see all sorts of fascistic manifestations in supposedly democratic societies such as the US for instance. Thirty years ago, who would have thought that people could be thrown in prison without charges and without trial and with no right of habeus corpus?
+8 # cicciuzzu 2015-01-10 16:39
Goedel's use of "decidable" refers to the property of a formal system's ability to derive by the proof methods of the system all its true propositions. Turing's use of decidability refers to Hilbert's Entscheidungs Problem (Decision Problem) which called for an algorithm to recognize all true propositions of the predicate calculus. Both problems are answered in the negative.
+4 # motamanx 2015-01-10 17:05
"Setting the record 'Straight'"...I get it.
-5 # Astoriapepe 2015-01-10 23:42
#Rockster commented: "* Homophobia is evil, destructive to all and unconscionable ."

Still, this comment gets 11 votes of approval??
THAT is NOT one of the major and valid points of the article.
+5 # Astoriapepe 2015-01-10 23:45
Sorry about that post. My mind is playing tricks on me at this time of night...
Or my eyes are not reading right.

I thought I read Homosexuality.. . Good thing I copied the quote, but I only re-read after posting. Sorry! My bad...
+1 # Jayceecool 2015-01-11 01:56
Does anyone think it would be fitting if, at some crucial point in our future, some time of grave danger to our species, we refused to do the right thing because of our prejudices?
+3 # brux 2015-01-11 10:56
Read "Collapse" by Jared Diamond, that is one of the largest factors int he collapse of civilizations, people doing what they have always done and refusing to change despite the evidence of their own eyes.

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