Isolation diary: Sharing a birthday with Alan Turing

A photo of this sculpture hangs in my study

Alan Turing was born on 23rd June 1912. I wasn’t aware that I shared a birthday with one of my heroes until the 1990s, long after his untimely death. In fact, the world knew very little about him until government papers were released in the 1970s under the 30 year rule. And yet he is now going to be memorialised on the next £50 note.

Actually I did become aware of some of his work at University, because I read his seminal pre-War paper “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” as part of a Philosophy of Maths module. Neither I, nor my tutor, knew that this was to become the foundation for computer science, via his work on the theoretical constructs he called ‘universal machines’ – now referred to as ‘Turing machines’. His work was influenced by all the key figures in the field, Kurt Gödel, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alonzo Church, David Hilbert and John von Neumann – all of whom I had read.

Later, of course, he was able to convert his imaginary machines into physical reality. After the War he built some of the earliest computers, first at the National Physical Laboratory and then at Manchester University.

Alan Turing wasn’t directly involved in building the Colossus – the world’s first electronic programmable computer – at Bletchley Park, although his theoretical ideas underpinned it. In the early days of the War he had developed another machine called the Bombe which was designed specifically to decrypt messages generated by the German Enigma machines.

We all know the story of how in 1952, long before he had been recognised as a national treasure, he was convicted on charges of gross indecency, having admitted as much to the police when they were investigating a burglary. To avoid going to prison he opted to take synthetic oestrogen – a form of chemical castration – for a whole year. As a consequence of the conviction he lost his consultancy job at GCHQ, the successor to Bletchley Park.

In 1954 he was found in his bed having died from cyanide poisoning. The inquest verdict was suicide, but that has been questioned since. He was apparently experimenting in a spare room with electroplating gold onto spoons, and was using potassium cyanide to dissolve the gold, so he could easily have inhaled the fumes by accident.

In the 1970s some of the papers that related to the wartime work in Bletchley Park were decommissioned. I remember the excitement around those revelations, and loved reading Andrew Hodges’ biography “Alan Turing: The Enigma”.  I seem to have a first edition, dated 1983, which bears a slightly different title: “The Enigma of Intelligence”, but it is the same text. It manages to combine the story of his life with in depth, but accessible, accounts of his discoveries and inventions.  The book spawned the film “The Imitation Game”, and I also remember going to see the 1986 play “Breaking the Code” starring Derek Jacobi.

In 1988, I started on a Masters in Intelligent Knowledge Based Systems at Imperial College, and much of what I had studied in the past in Philosophy and Computing came together in a magical way. Over half of the course was actually on Logic and built on my studies for my first degrees. Indeed the alternative forms of Logic that I had studied, over twenty years before, as entirely theoretical concepts were now revealed to be the key underpinnings of Artificial Intelligence.

I have much to thank Alan Turing for – his ideas have threaded through my life, and his story has been inspirational. And I haven’t even mentioned the Turing Test. We can only speculate on what he could have achieved if he had lived a full working life.

As a footnote, in 2011 the Lib Dem MP John Leech started a petition for Alan Turing to be pardoned. At first this was rejected on the grounds that Turing was properly convicted under the laws of the time. Leech continued his campaign and in 2013 the Queen signed his pardon. But it didn’t end there, and in 2017 the “Alan Turing Law” was enacted, which extended the pardon to 75,000 men who had been convicted in the past for their homosexuality.

 

 

 


Please note

We have been in full self-isolation since 16th March to protect my husband whose immune system is compromised.

If you are in self-isolation then join the Lib Dems in self-isolation Facebook group.

You can find my previous Isolation diaries here.

 

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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10 Comments

  • Katharine Pindar 24th Jun '20 - 7:34pm

    Happy birthday, Mary! Thank you for all your ingenious diaries, which have been much appreciated. I noted recently the one on choral singing, having read the cri-de-coeur myself in the paper. Hopefully the choirs can revive, now that one-metre distancing is a little more manageable, but I fear it is all up with dancing for the moment.
    Enjoy the sunny days, and stay safe indoors in the wet and windy ones!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 24th Jun '20 - 8:21pm

    Happy Birthday Mary, agreeing as often, now with this on the great man, a fine piece.

  • And a Happy Birthday from me too, Mary, and many more of them.

    Yes, indeed, John Leech deserves much credit for the reform as does Julian Huppert who worked with him.

    “At first this (the pardon) was rejected on the grounds that Turing was properly convicted under the laws of the time” was, of course, a nonsense. A precedent had been set by the Armed Forces Act 2006 which when passed allowed the 306 soldiers who had been ‘Shot at Dawn’ in WW1 to be pardoned posthumously.There is now a monument to these men in the National Arboretum.

    History, fascinating as it is, can often reveal great cruelty given that it is the study of what people did in the past…… and often, sadly, still do today.

  • John Marriott 24th Jun '20 - 9:06pm

    Alan Turing. In many ways he did as much as anyone to win WW2 and look how he was treated afterwards. I know it was a different age; but I’m so pleased that he now appears on the new £50 note and was given a posthumous pardon.

  • John Marriott 24th Jun '20 - 9:18pm

    Oh, and I forgot to add, something quite important happened on 23 June some four years ago, didn’t it?

  • Peter Martin 24th Jun '20 - 10:44pm

    I don’t want to take anything away from Alan Turing or any of the team at Bletchley Park but Marian Rejewski and others in Poland and France made a huge contribution to understanding Enigma in the pre war period too. They are often overlooked.

    But without them it is doubtful if the Enigma codes would have been broken.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marian_Rejewski

  • @Peter Martin – thanks for reminding us. I was well aware of the contribution made by the Polish, under very dangerous conditions, in understanding the modifications that the Germans had made to the commercial Enigma machine, which made it fiendishly difficult to decrypt in real time.
    @John Marriott – I remember 23rd June 2016 very well. Spent the day running a committee room.

  • Sue Sutherland 25th Jun '20 - 1:06pm

    Happy Belated Birthday Mary and thank you for keeping us going in isolation.

  • @Ian Sanderson – Yes, I have been to Bletchley Park and saw the sculpture there.
    I didn’t know about the statue at the University of Surrey, but I did go there to observe the Loebner Prize Competition one year. Just checked and it was held there in 2003.
    @Sue Sutherland – thank you!

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