Science

An apple laced with cyanide — Alan Turing still controversial at 100


The Nature special issue on Alan Turing reminded me of my visit to Bletchley Park a while ago. It’s a great place if your geeky interests include the history of computing and code breaking with a bombe. I now have a postcard of Turing’s slate statue on my desk.

I had known that Turing had been underappreciated in his own time, but I had never thought much about how he had lived (and died). What I learned was quite astonishing:

“In 1952 at a time when homosexuality was illegal in the UK, Turing was convicted of having a sexual relationship with another man, to which he made no defence other than to say he saw nothing wrong in his actions. Turing was sentenced to a treatment that amounted to chemical castration. The conviction robbed him of his security clearance for GCHQ, for which he still worked, and made him the target for surveillance at the start of the cold war. He died after eating an apple laced with cyanide.” *

Wow! ‘Under-appreciated’ seems to be quite an euphemism for somebody bullied to death. I’m really happy to live in 2012, where things are more enlightened. Or are they?

Reading the comments to the opening article of the Nature special issue made me doubt it:

“Do I detect the militant homosexual lobby pushing its agenda here?”

spits someone, while the next commentator tries to mediate:

Why we are only seeing the negative points (Homosexuality) of the Turning [sic], look at his contributions.

Indeed, why am I only seeing the negative points (idiocy!) in these two comments?

The dawn of computing

There are other reactions to the Turing special issue that I found much more interesting to follow. One titled Turing: Keep his work in perspective commented on Turing centenary: The dawn of computing:

[I]n essence, Turing’s famous 1936 paper on incomputability was merely an elegant rephrasing and reuse of mathematician Kurt Gödel’s 1931 results and techniques (…) Neither did Turing’s paper have any impact on the construction of the first program-controlled universal (and digital) computer: that was built in Berlin by Konrad Zuse …

Being able to elegantly rephrase a result by Gödel would make me very happy indeed and doesn’t seem like a small feat to me. But I think it’s good advice not to concentrate exclusively on one of the giants of computing and lose sight of the others. It’s a complex story, and there is something exciting to learn from everybody who contributed to its success.

Life’s code script

The next one is an answer to Syndey Brenner’s Life’s code script, where he argues that Turing machines and cells have much in common. Witzany and Baluška, however, emphasize that there is a formal clash of codes:

“Languages controlling Turing and von Neumann machines are formal algorithms, in which syntax determines meaning independently of context. Gene expression depends on environmental context, however, so cannot be similarly treated as a formal language.”

Treating the genome as a book containing information that can be read and edited is one of the most powerful and suggestive metaphors of modern science. But, still, it’s a metaphor! Brenner seems to be forgetting that.

Even better than the Fourth Plinth

I think these discussions are even better than putting a Turing statue on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth (even though I’m all in favor of doing that), because an active discussion of Turing’s contributions –neither adulation, nor insult– is the best way to appreciate his genius.

Florian

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