A Delayed, But Welcome, Apology
Friday, September 11, 2009 at 06:07 PM EDT
September 1 of this year marked the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germanyâ€™s invasion of Poland, the point of no return for the beginning of World War II. It is in some sense fitting that this month also sees the issuance of an official apology from UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown for the treatment of the British mathematician and pioneer computer scientist, Alan Turing. It is not easy to argue that the actions of any single person, no matter how heroic they were on an individual basis, potentially changed the course of an event as enormous as World War II, but in Turingâ€™s case there is a fair argument to be made. His work in breaking the encipherment of the German Enigma machines (there were several variants), building on the work of Polish mathematicians, and his contributions to the design of the bombes, electro-mechanical computers used to crack Enigma messages on a production basis, made an enormous contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany. Some historians estimate that the penetration of the Nazisâ€™ secret communications shortened the European war by two years. As Prime Minister Gordon Brown put it:
Turing, who was named one of Time magazineâ€™s 100 Most Important People of the [20th] Century, would have been an important figure even if the war had never occurred. He studied at Kingâ€™s College, Cambridge, receiving a first-class honours degree, and being elected a Fellow on the basis of his thesis on the Central Limit Theorem. In 1936, he published a landmark paper, On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Enscheidungsproblem, in which he analysed a reformulation of Kurt GÃ¶delâ€™s results of the limits of mathematical proof, and described a theoretical computing machine to illustrate the result. The Turing machine, as a conceptual device, is a staple of computer science today. Shortly before the war, he studied in the United States at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, receiving his PhD from Princeton in 1938. Turing also made significant contributions to early theoretical work on artificial intelligence, particularly the Turing Test.
Turing would undoubtedly have made many more contributions, but he had a severe handicap: he was gay, in an era when homosexuality could hardly be discussed. In 1952, in an atmosphere in Britain not that different from the McCarthy era in the US, Turing was prosecuted and convicted of gross indecency for a sexual relationship with another man. He was sentenced to forcible injections of female hormones, a procedure known as chemical castration. Turing died, apparently from suicide, in June 1954 at age 41. To quote PM Brown once again:
Andrew Hodges, author of the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma, maintains a Web site dedicated to Turing.
This article originally appeared on Rich's Random Walks.