The Man Who Changed The World: And Other Stories

Last night I heard a story to make the heart sing, and a boulder sit pallidly in the pit of one’s stomach. Same story, same life; different episodes.

It runs like a Greek myth: the story of a quiet academic who changed the world unbeknownst to it.

Alan Turing: an exquisite mind. The exhibition of his life and work opened on Wednesday (June 19) at the Science Museum in London; and anyone who thinks they know the ending of his extraordinary odyssey should spend time in the small, dark alcoves of this place, learning the extent of this man’s astonishing creativity. He was a master-artist of the logico-mathematical world.

Concieved in India, born in Maida Vale in 1912; in time he attended Sherborne School in Dorset.

At Sherborne, he met a young man whom he loved unrequitedly in a profound friendship. Christopher Morcom died aged 18, and Turing was devastated.

And so to Cambridge. He had a premise: a deep conviction that the patterns, which underlaid life itself, happened according to a set of instructions – known as algorithms.

Wartime, and his first labour at Bletchley Park. Turing worked with an elite team of codebreakers, Churchill’s ‘golden geese that never cackled.” It was Turing who developed decryption algorithms and deciphered intelligence which saved countless lives.

He left Bletchley behind for his next labour: the development of the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) at the National Physics Laboratory. This revolutionary machine would be able to carry out any computation, provided it had the correct algorithm.

And it did.

The speed of the pilot ACE computer proved itself quickly.When the world’s first jet air liners, the Comets, began to crash, it was swift calculation by ACE that identified the window surrounds as the problem.

And ACE was used by Dorothy Hodgkin to help identify the components of the vitamin B12 molecule. It seemed that a new world had opened up to the scientific community.

Turing was faced with his Scylla and Charybdis all too soon. Not a six-headed sea monster and a whirlpool: this modern day choice was profoundly horrifying in its own way.

In 1952, Turing was found to have had an ‘unlawful sexual relationship’. He was convicted of gross indecency in line with the anti-homosexual law of the day.

The judge offered him a choice: prison, or a course of injections of female hormones. Chemical castration.

He chose the latter. And still he worked on.

Because amid the closing doors and public shame of his life, he was nearing something sublime in the world of the mind.

He was working with a young researcher called Bernard Richards. They last met less than a week before he died.

They were deep into morphogenesis: the process by which something living achieves its shape. Turing held that at the very root of such growth are patterns: nature, too, has algorithms, just like the ones he fed to an early computer.

According to an account in the exhibition, ย Richards was set to work on a purely theoretical exercise, based on spherical organisms. If a small spherical organism had spikes, could Richards use Turing’s equations to predict where the spikes would grow?

The apprencice worked diligently and came up with a technical drawing mapping the spikes.

And then the news of Turing’s death emerged: a saucepan of cyanide, and an apple to take the taste away.

Richards was left alone. Yet still, he searched the natural world, and he found it.

It is calledย Radolaria:ย the creature was the living embodiment of Turing’s equations, swimming blithely around in the ocean. Using the knowledge of how nature instructed its building blocks, Turing and his apprentice had mimicked its very creation process.

Alan Turing was not some geek who spoke in binary, but a visionary of startling intellectual beauty.

And a sad loss to the world he deciphered.

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42 thoughts on “The Man Who Changed The World: And Other Stories

  1. Sometimes I truly feel at one with the mushrooms; I had never heard of Turing. Reading your blog is like getting an advanced education with none of the associated costs. Thanks, again, for all the enlightenment, Kate!

    1. What a lovely thing to say, Karen, thank you so much! But the amount I have learnt form your extended research raises you high above the mushrooms. Though I should add, in case any mushrooms are reading this, that mushrooms have their place and some of my best friends are mushrooms.

      Sorry. Having a day with Big Al. By lunchtime I’m always talking drivel ๐Ÿ˜€

      1. Research is easy, thanks in no small part to the internet (and probably Mr. Turing’s early work), but the stringing all of it together into an interesting, cohesive whole . . . that’s another matter entirely! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I always think what a tragic story it was that he was so shamed that he took his own life. How attitudes have changed. I have wondered what he might have achieved had he lived longer.

    1. His mother always held that his death was not suicide, Rosemary. And knowing just a fraction of what it is like to sense an outcome and work towards it without ceasing, it does surprise me that he was able to leave when he was on the edge of such discoveries. But, on reflection, he had been like that, crossing the borders of the possible, for the whole of his adult life. There would never be a good time to take his leave. I do find myself mourning that lost forty or so years.

  3. Gosh, Kate, you’ve given me much to think about as I start my day here. I knew of Alan Turing, probably more for the code breaking, and here in 300 + words you have opened up all sorts of information about this man. What a magnificent as well as sad life and all the changes and discoveries and good his work brought in the past 100 years. Thank you, Kate.

    1. You are welcome ๐Ÿ™‚ It was a magnificent life, Penny, and one which struck me deeply: not because of his ground breaking discoveries but because of his understanding of the schema of creation. Astounding stuff.

  4. The fossil in me, remembers one glorious spring day, sitting in a sunny corner table in Nova Scotia School of Art and Design staring intensely at Ernest Haeckel illustrations for most of the day. When I should have been studying for an art history exam. As for Alan Turing, ‘brain drain’ is truly an idiom of modern day stupidity. Due to bigotry, indifference and small minds; individuals like Turning, who’s greatness and abilities were an are cast away, existing only as ‘under currents’. I shudder when thinking, what if he was able to surface to develop to full potential -am thinking we would be in a better state than we are -*using foul words at this point but not typing. Thank you for exposing the ‘under currents’.

    1. Haeckel: what a wonderful skill he had. And you are so right about undercurrents: I find it impossibly sad that Turing did not get the recognition he deserved during his lifetime. The exhibition at London’s Science Museum goes some way to raising his posthumous profile.

  5. great article, Kate – there are details here about his personal life i didn’t know & this is what it made me think: in 1952! even after Hitler! even in the most civilized of civilized worlds, we still kill the best among us…

  6. Imagine us calling ourselves civilised when a man saves countless lives and is then cut off life and love because of sexual preference. We really have been fearful and shallow.

  7. I’m left a bit speechless by this much fascinating information, Kate. What a genius! And so many personal tidbits that are shockingly cruel! I was born in 1952, and the choices he made that year sound like they come from the Dark Ages. I am truly interested in learning even more about this really incredible man! Thank you for bringing him to my attention! Debra

  8. Dear Kate, whenever I read a blog posting that touches something deep down in me–maybe the heart of humanity–I stop breathing. I just read. And then at the end I’m breathless and mostly feeling the poignancy of what I’ve read. That’s how your posting affected me today. My eyes are swimming in tears because so often we crucify those whose visual might lead us out of the morass. Thank you for this tribute to Alan Turing whom I first met when reading a book entitled “Enigma” about Bletchley Park. Peace.

    1. This is a fantastic article, thank you so much for leaving a comment to point to it. It explains how it is entirely possible this could have been an accident- a cyanide apple always sounded so conclusive…

      1. I’m glad you found it interesting. I have to say that I may not have spotted it in the first place if your blog hadn’t already attuned me to it!

  9. As comforting as it is to see attitudes toward LGBT people evolve, even today there are still far too many places in the world that judge people on their sexuality and punish them for not being straight. The world was very lucky to have Alan Turing, who made such a lasting contribution, even though he was very unlucky to be a gay man in an era engulfed in prejudice that ultimately resulted in the abbreviation of his life. It is sad that he suffered such profound pain and humiliation at the end when he should have been showered with the respect and exaltation he was only able to receive posthumously. I hope this exhibit one day reaches New York.

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