8 June 2014

Alan Turing - Celebrating the Life of a Genius

Yesterday saw the sixtieth anniversary of the death of Alan Turing – one of the most remarkable human beings of the twentieth century. A mathematical genius, hero of the World War II code breakers of Bletchley Park, and father of modern computing, Turing was a mathematician, cryptographer and pioneer of computer science who possessed one of the greatest brains of the 20th century. His life was one of secret accomplishments shadowed by public misfortune.

He was a bright child - condensing Einstein’s Theory of Relativity for his mum at the age of 15. He received a scholarship at King’s College, Cambridge and it is to that august university that we turn to learn more about Alan Turing’s life. In his twenties he turned his attention to one of the most important mathematical problems of the twentieth century – the Decision Problem. He conceived of a machine which would read symbols on a strip of tape – 0s and 1s and showed that dark areas in mathematics would always pose a barrier to the complete truth. This machine model became one of the cornerstones of computer science. He did this when he was only 22.

He then went on to his code breaking work, for which he is rightly famous. Here, Dr James Grime, Enigma Project Officer at Cambridge University's Millennium Mathematics Project explains the code and tells the life story of this remarkable man born 100 years ago today. It concludes with his death on 7 June1954 – betrayed by the British Government and with only a single escape route – suicide – Turing bit from an apple he had previously laced with cyanide. This tragic end to a brilliant life was thirty years before most of his work would become public; the Official Secrets Act meant his true brilliance was not to be acknowledged until many years after his death.

Today, however, we can lift a glass to this most brilliant of men, celebrate his life and his achievements and perhaps speak softly an apology for the sins of our fathers.