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Alan Turing, a broken heart & the invention of the computer

By news editor, on 24 February 2012

Alan Turing’s memorial statue reads, “Father of computer science, mathematician, logician, wartime code breaker and victim of prejudice”. Dr Jon Agar’s engaging lecture encompassed all these angles of Turing’s life in order to ‘resurrect’ him in his centenary year.

A brief introduction from Sir Steven Wall (Chair of UCL Council) highlighted the relevance of Alan Turing today.

Firstly, it is currently UCL LGBT history month; secondly, it is the centenary year of Turing’s birth; and finally, it is appropriate in the context of the recent rejection of the e-petition calling for a pardon.

The key texts on the subject; David Leavitt The man who knew too much, Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing and the enigma of intelligence and Dr Jon Agar, Turing and the universal machine were mentioned.

“Wasting his time at public school”
During this lunch hour lecture, Dr Jon Agar (UCL Science and Technology Studies) took the audience on a comprehensive journey through the life of Alan Turing.

It was during his time at the public school, Sherborne, that there were two events of significance. Turing’s fascination with science grew and an annual report from Sherborne stated, “If he is to stay at a public school he must aim at becoming educated; if he is to become solely a scientific specialist then he is wasting his time at public school.”

Dr Agar commented that this was ironic as his machines were unique in the fact that they were universal not specialist.

The second event, which arguably shaped the rest of Turing’s life, was the fact that he fell in love, with an older boy, Christopher Morcom. He idolised Morcom and used him as a model.

When he died of bovine tuberculosis suddenly in 1930, Turing was devastated. Hodges highlights how Morcom’s death also had a profound effect on Turing’s academic interests, both by heightening his interest in the human spirit, the nature of consciousness and by convincing him he must do what Morcom could not, and go to Cambridge.

Cambridge and later life
While at Cambridge, Turing wrote his first significant paper (1936), addressing Hilbert’s great mathematical problems defined at the beginning of the century.

During the war, he worked at Bletchley Park reading and translating cryptic messages.

After the war, and a move to Manchester, the Turing Test was devised. It consisted of a human in one room, with a telephone link to another room with either a human or a machine in it. The question was whether the tester could tell whether it was a machine or human in the other room.

Thoughts concerning what made humans different from machines and what the mind was had been plaguing Turing since the death of Morcom. It was here that he wrote the first computer manual, which Dr Agar was keen to promote, “It’s well worth reading – unlike every other computer manual!”

Turing met Arnold Murray in 1952 and a relationship began; the young unemployed man was possibly flattered by the attention of the university professor.

Turing was burgled on 23 January 1952 and reported the crime to the police. In doing so, he referred to his relationship with Arnold Murray, thus incriminating himself in the process.

He was offered a choice between jail and chemical castration and he chose the latter. The treatment affected him physically and mentally. Post-treatment, Turing spent some time holidaying abroad in more liberal areas, but when a friend from Norway visited Turing, he became of interest to national security.

A man who had completed invaluable work on code breaking during the war and made a huge impact on the fields of mathematics and computing was persecuted and prosecuted for his sexuality.

Following a fascination with the then-recently-released Snow White by Walt Disney, Turing committed suicide by eating two bites of an apple laced with cyanide on the night of 8 June 1954.

The recent e-petition requesting a pardon for Turing has now collected more than 30,000 signatures, but was discouraged by justice minister Lord McNally and consequently rejected.

Dr Agar expressed his dissatisfaction with the result, clearly feeling that it is time to go back and try to right the wrongs.

It may not be possible to replicate for everyone who went through the same ordeal, but Dr Agar reasoned, “If you can have an unknown soldier that records all those who died in wars, why not have a figure that can show how things can change?”

And the world has changed – just ten minutes away from the statue of Alan Turing commemorating both his great works and also his mistreatment is the famous Canal Street, the centre of Manchester’s Gay Village.

The e-petition is still open, and many are hoping that if enough new signatures are added it will have an effect.

Jessica Lowrie is an intern in UCL Communications & Marketing.

Image: Turing in slate at Bletchley Park (Source: Jon Callas, Wikimedia Commons)

3 Responses to “Alan Turing, a broken heart & the invention of the computer”

  • 1
    Catherine Burrell wrote on 29 February 2012:

    I totally support this. After watching a dramatization recently about the life of Alan Turing I was very saddened. The fact that such a talented, determined man was treated in this way is definitely deserving of an apology.

  • 2
    Ian Watson wrote on 2 March 2012:

    There is a whole year of events worldwide taking place to celebrate Turing’s centenary and his legacy http://universal-machine.blogspot.co.nz/2012/01/happy-alan-turing-year.html

    You might want to consider signing the e-petition for his pardon if you are a UK resident: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/23526

  • 3
    Tom Chrysostomou wrote on 4 March 2012:

    I too watched the Alan Turing biopic on television and I share Ms Catherine Burrell’s view. The UK is failing at maths severly and it is lagging behind the rest of the world. Unless this huge problem is addressed and soon, there will be a lot of trouble ahead.

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