A Brief Look at Alan Turing:
another role model lost to bigotry

F. R. Lewis

Alan Turing was born June 23, 1912, in London, England. He attended Cambridge University in 1931. Over the next several years, he studied mathematics, particularly in relation to modern physics (relativity and quantum mechanics). Although Turing's lover in college, fellow mathematics student James Atkins, was a pacifist, Turing did not become a committed pacifist or Marxist as was then common among students at elite universities. In 1936, Turing was recognized for his work on probability theory.

As early as 1900, the great German mathematician David Hilbert had formulated the question of "decidability": is there a way by which all mathematical questions could be decided? In 1931, Kurt Godel proved that mathematics is "incomplete", contrary to the earlier belief of Bertrand Russell that logic was sufficient ground for mathematical truth. Turing's reputation as one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century rests on his work during 1935-36 when he grappled with the elusive complexities that challenged his colleagues before him.

By April 1936, Turing had completed his paper "On Computable Numbers," but was scooped by an American Alonzo Church, who had been working on the same problem for many years. Turing's radical new approach differed from Church's reliance on formal logic. Turing conceived of a machine, like a typewriter, writing elements of a pre-defined set of symbols on a very long spool of paper tape, which could be moved in either direction. The typewriter could be put into several "states" _ like using a shift key for capital letters. The spool could move left or right. In each event, the machine would read a symbol, and based on its current state, change to a new state and write a symbol on the tape, then move the tape left or right one character. By selecting the proper symbols to describe a mathematical question, the Turing machine would run until a solution was found _ in other words, if it ever halted, there was a solution. If the problem was "undecidable," it would run forever; it could not stop.

Turing had invented, on paper, the modern digital, electronic computer. Every computer made, starting with the ENIAC in 1945, and despite different engineering implementations, is at its most rudimentary level (as the quark is the lowest level of physics, or the cell the lowest level of an organism) a Turing Machine. The moves of a Turing machine also form a primitive "language" ("configuration"). From pure mathematical origins, "configurations" have evolved over seven decades into computer languages such as Assembler, Fortran, Cobol, RPG, C, and Java. Such languages have "context-free grammars"; i.e. they lack the ambiguity of human languages, which, for example, critic William Empson has cited as the basis for poetry, and form part of a broader class of languages. In the 1950's, Noam Chomsky, the well-known American linguistics expert, founded his entire theory of languages in a series of papers on language-generating grammars and automata theory.

During World War II, Turing worked in a special intelligence unit of code breakers. Using machines misleadingly called "bombes," coded German radio messages were reversed through the use of electronic circuitry. After a couple of years, the code was broken so successfully that the British Navy could intercept and destroy unsuspecting German submarines. This allowed British and foreign merchant ships to safely replenish the desperate island's dwindling supplies of many necessities. Although pacifists will naturally find this an inappropriate use of Turing's talents, longtime War Resisters' League Chair David McReynolds has suggested most conscientious objectors during World War II were relieved, at the end, that the genocidal Nazis did not take over the world.

Turing neither celebrated nor hid his homosexuality during these years. He came out one evening to a colleague who later became the "C" of the British Secret Service. In the spymaster's memoirs, he recalled his revulsion at Turing's revelation, particularly because Turing seemed to regard it as entirely natural. In spite of this, the two maintained a good working relationship.

After the war, Turing gradually lost interest in computing machines, and began to work on mathematical biology and quantum physics. He continued to work for secret intelligence until he lost his security clearance on the grounds he could be blackmailed by foreign agents, despite the fact that he had never concealed his sexuality.

Turing was also a world-class distance runner.

In the early 1950's Turing, whom most contemporaries remember as taciturn, became more social, visiting gay pubs in London. From one he brought home a young man who, he later discovered, stole some things from his house. Turing contacted the police. During the inquiry, Turing explained the circumstances that led to the theft. On March 31, 1952, Turing was arrested for being homosexual. At his trial, it was argued Turing had corrupted his younger acquaintance, a working-class man who was in his early 20's.

Turing agreed to a series of chemical treatments thought to cure, or at least arrest, homosexuality. These proved ineffective.

Alan Turing committed suicide June 8, 1954.

See Andrew Hodges' biography "Alan Turing: the Enigma," www.turing.org.uk. For an introduction to the relationship between Turing's and Chomsky's thought, see "Introduction to Formal Languages" by Gyorgy E. Revesz (Dover).

F. R. Lewis is a computer technician with more than 25 years of experience in the computer field. His quiet activism is a fresh voice from Auburn, New York.

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