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Alan Turing - Translating Symbolic Logic into Reality

Turing was one of World War II's secret heroes. He was the mathematical genius at Bletchley Park who invented the device which deciphered "Enigma" the secret German military code, giving British and Allied forces the detailed advance knowledge of German land and sea maneuvers which many believe was decisive in the allied victory.

Despite his leading role in breaking the ultimate German secret code in World II and later in the development of the modern computer, Turing the man has remained unknown to most; a mysterious figure to those who know of him and his extraordinary achievements.

In terms of his school education he was not so much obstreperous as bewildered by educational demands which had nothing to do with his interests. In December 1927, Ross (Turing's English Teacher) placed him (Alan Turing) bottom in both English and Latin, attaching to the report an inky, blotted page which clearly indicated the negligible amount of energy conceded by Alan to the deeds of Marius and Sulla. Ross wrote:

"I can forgive his writing, though it is the worst I have ever seen, and I try to view tolerantly his [illegible] inexactitude and slipshod, dirty, work, inconsistent though such inexactitude is in a utilitarian, but I cannot forgive the stupidity of his attitude towards sane discussion on the New Testament.

He ought not to be in this form of course as far as form subjects go. He is ludicrously behind."

Yet even Ross tempered his complaint with the comment "I like him personally".

As a boy at home, Alan's messy experiments might be tiresome, but he had a jolly way of coming out with scientific facts, and of telling jokes against his own clumsiness - naive and free from showing off, it was hard not to like him.

As Turing observed the work of his coding machine, he became increasingly challenged by the possibility of using the new techniques of electronics to translate symbolic mathematical logic into reality - of building a machine that could think. Turing figured prominently in the postwar development of the modem computer and, convinced of its potential, he devised the "Turing Test," which posed and answered the question: at what point, if ever, may we consider a computer truly intelligent?. This test is still used today in advanced artificial intelligence theory to determine computer "intelligence."

He was, to all outward appearances, a misfit. Naively straightforward, openly atheistic, unapologetically homosexual. Turing found intellectual refuge in mathematical research, and social refuge in the free-thinking Cambridge of the 1930s. But after the war and the first rush of postwar enthusiasm for the new computer technology, the same government that had embraced Turing's genius and encouraged him to begin planning and designing the first electronic, stored-program, digital computer suppressed and ultimately withdrew support for his work in the shadow of the growing Cold War and an increasing distrust of Turing's eccentricity.

The complexities of Turing's character and the lack of recognition he received in his lifetime were inextricably linked with his work: the emotional scars caused by an upbringing which attempted to fit him into an upper-middle-class mold; his astonishing gift for pure logical thought; his 1952 arrest for "gross indecency"; his obligatory submission to psychoanalysis and demeaning hormone treatments designed to "cure" his homosexuality and keep him from being imprisoned; and his mysterious death in 1954, officially attributed to suicide. Turing's life demonstrated his refusal to compromise his own nature, even in the face of persecution by the postwar "security state."

Extracted & Paraphrased from:

Alan Turing - The Enigma. Andrew Hodge. Published by Simon and Schuster - New York (1983). Inline Image - Go To