Stories tagged Alan Turing

Sep
17
2009

A memorial statue of Alan Turing
A memorial statue of Alan TuringCourtesy Kurt Seebauer
This has been in the news recently, but it didn’t occur to me until just now that it really has a place on Science Buzz.

Alan Turing was an English mathematician, and one of the fathers of computer science. He developed some of the earliest computers, and created the very first designs for a “stored-program” computer (a computer that keeps data and instructions inside of it, as opposed to one that required the operator to input every step.)

He was also interested in artificial intelligence, and proposed an experiment called the Turing test, meant to determine if a machine was truly intelligent. (Basically, a computer that could fool a human into thinking that he or she was talking with another person would pass the Turing test.)

Turing was also a code breaker, which is where the “war hero” part comes in. The day after the United Kingdom entered World War 2, Alan Turing went to work for the Government Code and Cypher School, an organization meant to break enemy codes. At GCCS, Turing and his colleagues developed automatic code breaking machines to decipher the elaborately encrypted messages of the Axis forces.

Turing’s work in collecting German military secrets through code breaking has been said to have shortened WWII by as much as two years, saving thousands of lives.

Alan Turing was also gay, and when he admitted this to the police after his home was broken into, he was charged with “gross indecency,” a law that essentially made homosexuality a criminal offense. Turing was given the choice of going to prison or accepting probation on the condition that he undergo chemical castration. Chemical castration involves the administration of drugs that change the subject’s hormone balance. This can cause the loss of sexual drive, as well as loss of hair, and muscle and bone density.

Two years after his conviction, Alan Turing killed himself.

It was a pretty awful way to treat someone who had contributed so much to the peace and safety of the world, as well as to the revolutionary discipline of computer science. This month the British government finally issued an apology to Alan Turing, acknowledging the scientist’s great contributions to humankind, as well as the shameful way he had been treated by his own government.

So there you go. Let’s not let it happen again.