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New Military Coins from The Royal Mint
ENGRAVED IN HISTORY
New Military Coins from The Royal Mint
ENGRAVED IN HISTORY

The Making of a Remarkable Mind

The Making of a Remarkable Mind

Born on 23 June 1912 in Maida Vale, London, Alan Turing spent most of his childhood separated from his parents, Julius Mathison Turing and Ethel Sara Turing. His father worked in the Indian Civil Service and his mother, whom he remained close with through regular correspondence, insisted her son was brought up in Britain.

At the age of 13, Turing began his secondary education at Sherborne School in Dorset, where he showed an exceptional aptitude for science and mathematics, frustrating those teachers who expected pupils to focus on classics and scripture. This didn’t stop him from taking it upon himself to study complex scientific theories, such as relativity, and cultivating a remarkable mind that would later carve an indelible mark in the fields of computing, mathematics and science. Following the death of his close friend Christopher Morcom at Sherborne School, Turing eschewed collaboration and took a more single-minded approach to his intellectual endeavours.

‘From now on, Alan would always do things his way.’
Prof: Alan Turing Decoded – A Biography by Dermot Turing

The Making of a Remarkable Mind

A Mathematical Marvel

In December 1930, Alan Turing received a scholarship to study mathematics at King’s College, Cambridge. Marred by disappointment, he underachieved in his first year maths exam and expressed his bitter disappointment in a letter to Mrs Morcom, the mother of his late friend:

‘I suppose you saw that I had only got a 2nd in 1st part of Maths. I can hardly look anyone in the face after it.’

By 1934, Turing’s early disappointment would become a distant memory, as he achieved his first major mathematical achievement. Professor Sir Arthur Eddington, whose lectures Turing had chosen to attend, posited a fundamental theory to unify quantum theory, gravitation and relativity. Another problem concerned the relationship of experimental measurements to the actual underlying measure, which Turing was able to establish. Unbeknown to Turing, the Finnish mathematician Jarl Waldemar Lindeberg had previously found a proof for the problem, known as the Central Limit Theorem, 22 years earlier. Nevertheless, the Electors to Fellowships referred a dissertation Turing wrote on the subject for review and one of the reviewers, Mr A.S. Beskovitch, wrote in his report:

‘The development of Mr Turing’s method is very much different from that of Lindeberg, which makes me completely confident that the work has been done in a genuine ignorance of Lindeberg’s work. Mr Turing’s proof is somewhat more complicated than the Lindeberg proof, but all the same it is an excellent success and it would be so not only for a beginner but also for a fully developed scientist.’

The Basis of Modern Computing

Turing had a knack for distilling the most abstract mathematical ideas and linking them to the real world where they could have practical use. Posited by David Hilbert – a mathematics professor working in Göttingen – one idea explored the issue of decidability and putting mathematics into a symbolic form. Known in German as the Entscheidungsproblem, Hilbert’s idea sought to find a process for determining the provability of a scientific or theoretical proposition with a definitive yes or no answer. This aroused Turing’s curiosity and eventually led him to publish a paper on Computable Numbers in 1936 – a seminal piece that is now considered the foundation of computer science. Turing picked apart Hilbert’s plan and came up with the practical concept of a ‘universal’ computing machine, which had a limited range of physical functions but could imitate the behaviour of any single-purpose machine. In essence, Turing had formulated a basic description of algorithms.

Enigma – Breaking the Code

During the Second World War, Turing served as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park. Ironically, he had joined the ‘Anti-War Council’ a few years before when he was at King’s College. The fight Turing partook in would become one of logic and intellect, as along with other mathematicians he faced the challenge of cracking the code sent by the Enigma machine used by the Nazis to send cyphered commands to their forces. Known as a ‘bomba’, the Polish had conceived the idea of a codebreaking machine before the outbreak of the war. Inspired by the design and machination, Turing and Gordon Welchman created the Bombe machine, named in tribute to the Poles’ work, which was able to crack Enigma and help sway the war in favour of the Allies. In 1946, Turing’s contribution to the war effort was officially recognised with an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire).

The Imitation Game

Four years after receiving his OBE, Alan Turing became a Reader at the Computing Laboratory at the University of Manchester. Following on from where he left off before the Second World War, he turned his focus to an idea that explored the possibility of a computer that could think like a human. In 1950, he published another famous paper called Computing Machinery and Intelligence, which put forward a method called the ‘Imitation Game’ – now known as the ‘Turing Test’. The method determined a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligence and has had an enduring influence on the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Solving a Biological Puzzle

The year after his famous paper on AI, Turing published The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis – another formative work but in a different scientific field of study. The paper presented a theory that suggested a mathematical equation for explaining the chemical interactions that form many of the biological patterns we see in the natural world – such as spots, stripes and flower petals. By applying mathematics to developmental biology, Turing created an entirely new science. The groundbreaking paper was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in August 1952 and almost 70 years on from its publication, it is still the subject of intense investigation.

Posthumous Justice

Until 1967, male homosexual activity was illegal in the United Kingdom. Throughout his life, Alan Turing managed to keep his sexuality largely hidden until a fateful incident in 1952 that led to a criminal conviction of ‘gross indecency’. The incident involved a burglary, which Turing reported to the police, but the subsequent investigation found he had fabricated part of the story and attention turned to his relationship with a young man linked to the crime, Arnold Murray. The investigation deduced Turing and Murray had engaged in a sexual relationship yet Murray managed to get off scot-free. Often the punishment for homosexual offences was imprisonment yet the court ordered Turing to undergo ‘treatment by a duly qualified medical practitioner’. They viewed his sexuality as a mental health condition and the treatment was essentially a form of chemical castration.

In 2013, Her Majesty The Queen issued a posthumous royal pardon to Turing. This gesture prompted ‘Turing’s Law’, as it is now known, which has posthumously pardoned thousands of gay and bisexual men convicted of now abolished sexual offences.

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