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, 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 called Radolaria: 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.