Alan Turin : Wiki Commons
June marks the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing – mathematical genius, hero of the WWII code breakers of Bletchley Park, and father of modern computing.
To celebrate, a short film has been produced by the University. A blue plaque has been unveiled on the front of King’s College – where Turing was both a student and then a fellow.
Alan 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 triumphs shadowed by public tragedy.
Perhaps best known today for his part in breaking the German Enigma code during World War II, Turing was by that time already established as a mathematician of extraordinary capability.
During his time at King’s College, Cambridge, he conceived of the ‘Turing Machine’ – a universal machine which could imitate all possible calculating devices. This mathematical model went on to become one of the cornerstones of computer science, and is arguably the most influential mathematical abstraction of the 20th Century. Turing was 22 years old.
“Turing’s centenary year is a very special year for me, and other mathematicians like me,” said Dr James Grime from the University’s Millenium Maths Project, who regularly tours schools with an original ‘Enigma’ machine.
“In its purest form, mathematics is the search for truth, and Turing was one of the most important contributors to this search. It’s fantastic that his life is being celebrated.”
Grime has presented a short film produced by the University on the life and work of Turing for the University’s YouTube and Vimeo channels. The film uses some of the photographs and documents that his family gave to King’s College. The Turing family have continued to donate documents to the King’s Archive Centre, and you can see many of these online at the Turing Digital Archive.
At 3.30pm on the afternoon of the centenary day, Saturday 23 June, the Mayor of Cambridge – Councillor Sheila Stuart – will unveil a Blue Plaque to commemorate Alan Turing on the grass in front of King’s College. The event will be streamed live on the internet on the King’s College website here.
A major centenary conference looking at Turing’s impact on mathematics, computing, philosophy and beyond is currently taking place in Cambridge – where the first issue of a new interdisciplinary journal called “Computability” has been presented. Inspired directly by Turing and his work, the journal aims to capture the spirit of Turing through the combination of theoretical insight and practical application that is the mark of Turing’s work.
More information on the conference here
More information on the journal here
Born in London on 23 June 1912, Turing spent his childhood in Hastings in Kent and Sherbourne in Dorset. He displayed a precocious talent at school for maths and science, including condensing Einstein’s theory of relativity for his mum at the age of just 15. Turing’s abilities led to him receive a scholarship to King’s College.
He famously went on to make a vital contribution to the code-breakers at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Not only did he make the first breakthroughs with the Naval Enigma code, allowing Britain’s food and supplies to be shipped across the Atlantic, but, along with Gordon Welchman, he designed the machine – called the Bombe – which smashed the German Enigma code.
In 1945 Turing received an OBE for services to the Foreign Office, although the real reason for this honour remained top secret for another 30 years, long past Turing’s death. Many historians today believe that the work of the code-breakers shortened the war by two years.
In September 2009, the British government made a public apology to Alan Turing – who was gay at a time when it was illegal in Britain. When authorities discovered the truth about his sexuality, he was sentenced to endure horrific hormone treatment to avoid imprisonment, labelled a security risk and forced from his job as a code breaker.
Turing committed suicide in 1954 by biting from an apple laced with cyanide, a desperately sad end to the life of a genius whose astonishing contribution to the war effort remained unknown until the 1970s.