The Origins of Alan Turing ~ A Short Biography


We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done. ~ Alan Turing

small-heartAlan Mathison Turing was born on 23 June 1912, the second and last child (after his brother John) of Julius Mathison and Ethel Sara Turing. The unusual name of Turing placed him in a distinctive family tree of English gentry, far from rich but determinedly upper-middle-class in the peculiar sense of the English class system.

alanAlan Mathison Turing OBE FRS was a pioneering English computer scientist, mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and theoretical biologist. His boyhood scientific interests were a trial to his mother whose perpetual terror was that he would not be acceptable to the English Public School. At twelve he expressed his conscious fascination with using ‘the thing that is commonest in nature and with the least waste of energy,’ presentiment of a life seeking freshly minted answers to fundamental questions. Despite this, he was successfully entered for Sherborne School. The headmaster soon reported: “If he is to be solely a Scientific Specialist, he is wasting his time at a Public School.” The assessment of his establishment was almost correct.

His work introduced a concept of immense practical significance: the idea of the Universal Turing Machine. The concept of ‘the Turing machine‘ is like that of ‘the formula‘ or ‘the equation‘; there is an infinity of possible Turing machines, each corresponding to a different ‘definite method’ or algorithm.

small-heartIt is hard now not to think of a Turing machine as a computer program, and the mechanical task of interpreting and obeying the program as what the computer itself does. Thus, the Universal Turing Machine embodies the essential principle of the computer: a single machine which can be turned to any well-defined task by being supplied with the appropriate program. ideas provided the principle, the practical means, and the motivation for the modern computer, a single machine capable of handling any programmed task.

The Alan Turing’s Crisis

Alan Turing was arrested and came to trial on 31 March 1952, after the police learned of his sexual relationship with a young Manchester man. He made no serious denial or defence, Policeinstead telling everyone that he saw no wrong with his actions. He was particularly concerned to be open about his sexuality even in the hard and unsympathetic atmosphere of Manchester engineering.

small-heartRather than go to prison he accepted, for the period of a year, injections of oestrogen intended to neutralise his libido.

His work on the morphogenetic theory continued. He developed his theory of pattern formation out of instability into the realm of spherical objects, such as the Radiolaria, and also on the cylinder, as a model of plant stems. He set as a particular goal the explanation for the appearance of the Fibonacci numbers in the leaf patterns of plants — most noticeable in the close-packed spirals of sunflower heads and fir cones.

Besides this he refreshed his youthful interest in quantum physics, studying the problem of wave-function reduction in quantum mechanics, with a hint that he was considering a non-linear mechanism for it.

small-heartHe took a new interest in the representation of elementary particles by spinors, and in relativity theory.

A factor in his life unknown to most around him was that he had also continued to work for GCHQ, the post-war successor to Bletchley Park, on the basis of a personal connection with Alexander, now its director. But since 1948, the conditions of the Cold War, and the alliance with the United States, meant that known homosexuals had become ineligible for security skateboarding-smiley-emoticonclearance. Turing, now therefore excluded, spoke bitterly of this to his one time wartime colleague, now MI6 engineer Donald Bayley, but to no other personal friends. State security also seems the likely cause of what he described as another intense crisis in March 1953, involving police searching for a visiting Norwegian who had come to see him. Concern over the foreign contacts of one acquainted with state secrets was understandable, and his holiday in Greece in 1953 could not have been calculated to calm the nerves of security officers.

Although unable to tell his friends about questions of official secrecy, in other ways he actively sought much greater intimacy of expression with them and with a Jungian therapist. e861fb7b5d22fc4a6f97d642b05b8b72Eccentric, solitary, gloomy, vivacious, resigned, angry, eager, dissatisfied — these had always been his ever-varying characteristics, and despite the strength that he showed the world in coping with outrageous fortune, no-one could safely have predicted his future course.

small-heartHe was found by his cleaner when she came in on 8 June 1954. He had died the day before of cyanide poisoning, a half-eaten apple beside his bed. His mother believed he had accidentally ingested cyanide from his fingers after an amateur chemistry experiment, but it is more credible that he had successfully contrived his death to allow her alone to believe this. The coroner’s verdict was suicide.

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Article — A short biography by Andrew Hodges


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