Turing Exhibit Opens at Science Museum

June 24, 2012

As part of the Alan Turing Centenary, the Science Museum in London has opened a new exhibit on Turing’s life and work.  The exhibit includes a number of items related to Turing, including a model of the Pilot ACE computer, for which Turing produced the basic design in 1945 at the National Physical Laboratory, and an example of a German Enigma cipher machine.

The “Babbage” blog at The Economist has a review of the exhibit, and the ways in which it relates to Turing’s life, in an attempt to give a rounded picture of the man.

Unlike other Turing tributes, which have tended to focus on one aspect of his work, the Science Museum aims to give a flavour of Turing the individual, and thus the exhibition mixes illustrations of the importance of his academic achievements with exhibits from the personal life of the man himself.

As the article points out, Turing is probably better known to the public for his wartime codebreaking work than for his work in mathematics.  His 1936 paper, On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem [PDF], in which he described the computing device we now know as a Turing machine, is certainly not light reading.  And computers, especially modern ones, aren’t really all that interesting to look at.  The Pilot ACE is old enough to have a console and visible electronic components.

It sounds like a most interesting exhibit.


Alan Turing Centenary, Part 1

June 19, 2012

I’ve written here a couple of time about the Alan Turing Centenary, marking the 100th anniversary of of the birth of the English mathematician, cryptanalyst, and pioneer computer scientist; and about some of the events planned for the occasion.  This coming Saturday, June 23, is Turing’s birthday, so there will undoubtedly be more events and tributes to follow.  In this, and subsequent posts, I’ll attempt to highlight some of the more interesting items that I come across.

Although it is not new, one item that deserves to be on the list is the wonderful biography of Turing by Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma.   Hodges also maintains The Alan Turing Home Page, a Web site dedicated to Turing.  It includes a short on-line biography, a scrapbook, and links to documents and publications.

Ars Technica has an article about Turing’s life and work, “The Highly Productive Habits of Alan Turing”, by Matthew Lasar, lecturer in history at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  It gives a good brief overview of Turing’s work, organized under seven “productive habits”:

  1. Try to see things as they are.
  2. Don’t get sidetracked by ideologies.
  3. Be practical.
  4. Break big problems down into smaller tasks.
  5. Just keep going.
  6. Be playful.
  7. Remember that it is people who matter.

If you aren’t familiar with Turing at all, this article is a good place to get the highlights quickly.

Wired has a couple of items on Turing.  The first is another brief biographical sketch, in the form of a time line of Turing’s life and work.  It mentions one occasion that I had forgotten: in the early 1950s, Turing wrote a program to play chess.  This was (pace Habit 3 above) not a very practical exercise, since at that time there was no computer powerful enough to run the program.  Turing tested the program by using an emulator — himself — executing the program with pencil and paper.

The second article at Wired is a more subjective look at some of Turing’s accomplishments.  It focuses mostly on his wartime work at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park (also known as Station X), breaking the German’s Enigma encryption system, and on his work in computer science.  It also mentions Turing’s only paper on biology, “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis”, published in 1952.  Oddly, it doesn’t mention one of his best-known works, the essay Computing Machinery and Intelligence, published in October 1950 in the Oxford journal Mind, in which he proposes the “imitation game”, the Turing test of intelligence.

I’ll post additional items as I come across them.


ACM to Celebrate Turing Centenary

June 16, 2012

Last October, I posted a note here about the upcoming 100-year anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing, the English mathematician and pioneer computer scientist.  Turing was a central figure in the successful British effort, at Bletchley Park, to break coded messages produced by the Germans’ Enigma cipher machine.  Some of Turing’s theoretical papers on cryptanalysis have been declassified only recently.

Network World has an article about some additional activities planned by the Association for Computing Machinery [ACM] around the anniversary, which is June 23.   Vint Cerf of Google, a noted computer scientist in his own right, is president-elect of the ACM and chair of the organization’s commemorative events, points out how fundamental Turing’s work is to modern computer science.

“Alan had such a broad impact on so many aspects of computer science,” says Cerf. “The deep notion of computability is so fundamental to everything we do in computing.”

In designing a hypothetical computing device, which we now know as a Turing machine, Turing provided a framework for analysing the possibilities and limitations of mechanical, and electronic, computing devices.

Since 1966, the ACM has given out its annual Turing Award, sometimes referred to as the “Nobel Prize” of computer science, to “an individual selected for contributions of a technical nature made to the computing community”.   (Vint Cerf received a Turing Award in 2004.)  This year, at an event to be held in San Francisco June 15-16, the ACM is trying to assemble all living Turing Award recipients, and will feature talks and panel discussions on Turing’s life and work.

Turing, who was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Important People of the [20th] Century, would have been an important figure even if the war had never occurred.  It is good to see that his contributions are being more fully appreciated.


Alan Turing Centenary Celebration

October 16, 2011

Back in September 2009, I posted a note here about UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s official apology to Alan Turing, the English mathematician and pioneer computer scientist.  Turing was a central figure in the successful British effort, at Bletchley Park, to break coded messages produced by the Germans’ Enigma cipher machine; some historians say that the efforts of Turing and his colleagues shortened WW II in Europe by two years.   He also was a pioneer in the fields of computer science and artificial intelligence.  Alan Turing Year 2012

June 23, 2012, is the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth in London, and there is an effort underway, the Alan Turing Year,  to mark the year as a celebration of Turing’s life and scientific accomplishments.

During his relatively brief life, Turing made a unique impact on the history of computing, computer science, artificial intelligence, developmental biology, and the mathematical theory of computability.

2012 will be a celebration of Turing’s life and scientific impact, with a number of major events taking place throughout the year. Most of these will be linked to places with special significance in Turing’s life, such as Cambridge, Manchester and Bletchley Park.

A number of special events have already been planned, and there are undoubtedly more to come.  The project is being managed by an advisory committee (listed on the main page), and is sponsored by a variety of organizations, including the British Computer Society, the Association for Computing Machinery, Microsoft Research, the Royal Society of Scotland, the German Mathematical Society, and Wolfram Research.

In a related item, a post at the I Programmer  blog reports that Warner Brothers has just acquired the production rights for a new biographical film about Alan Turing’s life.  The script, The Imitation Game (presumably a reference to the Turing test), by Graham Moore, is apparently based on  Andrew Hodges’s wonderful biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma.  Apparently the scuttlebutt is that Leonardo di Caprio “has the inside track” to play Turing.   This is a different film from the documentary project I wrote about in February.   And it appears that at least one additional production is in the works:

In the UK Channel 4 has also commissioned a new documentary with the working title The Hero of Station X .

(Station X was the code name used to refer to the British WWII code-breaking effort at Bletchley Park.)

Turing, who was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Important People of the [20th] Century, would have been an important figure even if the war had never occurred.  It is heartening to see that his many contributions are being recognized, even if belatedly.


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