The Bank of England recently announced new £50 bank notes featuring the mathematician-cum-computer-pioneer, Alan Mathison Turing. The note is expected to enter circulation by early 2021.
Best remembered for his code breaker, known as the ‘British Bombe’, his invention was vital in helping the Allies win World War II by decrypting secret messages between German vessels known as the ‘Enigma Code’.
While it is difficult to get an accurate number, it has been estimated that the intelligence provided by Turing’s work had shortened the war by two years and spared over 14 million lives.
The Londoner’s biggest contribution to mathematics was the concept of The Turing Machine, widely regarded as one of the earliest frameworks of artificial intelligence and is used as a computational model for modern day computer theorists. This then led to Turing’s development of the Turing Test, a concept which tests a computer’s ability to exhibit intelligence and behaviour that is discernible from a human being.
Despite his significant contributions to both the scientific community and the war, Alan Turing’s life was overshadowed by his sexual orientation – he was a gay man living in the 1950s, a period when homosexual acts were both illegal and socially stigmatised in the United Kingdom.
In 1952, a burglary led to the authorities discovering his homosexual tendencies and he was soon convicted for “gross indecency”.
Given the choice between imprisonment and probation, Turing chose the latter on the condition that he had to take hormones to suppress his libido, effectively chemically castrating him. His personal accounts revealed major side-effects such as the growth of breast tissue and impotency.
Sadly, Turing was found dead by his housekeeper on 8 June 1954; the cause of death being suicide by cyanide poisoning.
Years later, online petitions by the public in 2009 and 2011 were acknowledged by the British government which led to a public apology and pardoning of his homosexuality conviction respectively. Prime Minister Gordon Brown described in the apology that the government’s treatment of Alan Turing was “appalling”.
A 2017 legal provision which serves to pardon men who were convicted under historical legislation that outlawed homosexual acts was informally named the “Alan Turing law” to honour his bravery and legacy.
Alan Turing was a man who, above all else, believed in a higher form of both science and society ahead of his time.
The technology that we take for granted in our daily lives and the rapid advancements yet to come would probably not exist without the foundation laid by Turing despite the persecution he had to endure in his lifetime.
Here are 8 interesting facts you need to know about the man who broke the Enigma.
1. He was a child prodigy and teachers were fascinated by his special abilities of solving complex equations and problems since grade school.
2. His love for mathematics never gained him much respect with some teachers at Sherborne, an independent school, as they placed greater emphasis on literature and the classics.
3. Turing invented CAPTCHA. His exentensive research on AI and cryptology laid the foundation for what is now known as CAPTCHA, used to determine if a user is human.
4. He often ran 60 kilometers to London for meetings, and liked to chain his coffee mug to a radiator at Bletchley Park to stop other people from using it.
5. In 2012, the Olympic flame was passed from one person to another in front of Turing’s statue in Manchester on what would have been his 100th birthday.
6. At the age of 16, he grasped Einstein’s work and managed to deduce Einstein’s questioning of Newton‘s laws of motion from a text in which this was never made explicit.
7. He gained a First Class Honours in Mathematics from King’s College, Cambridge.
8. At the age of 36, Turing developed a chess program for computers which had yet to be invented. He also published several important papers on mathematical biology.
*Featured image sourced from Time Magazine