Saturday 21 June 2014

Men of Yore: Alan Turing

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity. 

Alan Turing

Alan Mathison Turing was born on 23 June 1912, the second and last child (after his brother John) of Julius Mathison and Ethel Sara Turing. The unusual name of Turing placed him in a distinctive family tree of English gentry, far from rich but determinedly upper-middle-class in the peculiar sense of the English class system.
Until his father's retirement from India in 1926, Alan Turing and his elder brother John were fostered in various English homes where nothing encouraged expression, originality, or discovery. Science for him was an extra-curricular passion, first shown in primitive chemistry experiments. But he was given, and read, later commenting on its seminal influence, a popular book called Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know.
His boyhood scientific interests were a trial to his mother whose perpetual terror was that he would not be acceptable to the English Public School. At twelve he expressed his conscious fascination with using 'the thing that is commonest in nature and with the least waste of energy,' presentiment of a life seeking freshly minted answers to fundamental questions. Despite this, he was successfully entered for Sherborne School. The headmaster soon reported: "If he is to be solely a Scientific Specialist, he is wasting his time at a Public School." The assessment of his establishment was almost correct. 
Turing's private notes on the theory of relativity showed a degree-level appreciation, yet he was almost prevented from taking the School Certificate lest he shame the school with failure. But it appears that the stimulus for effective communication and competition came only from contact with another very able youth, a year ahead of him at Sherborne, to whom Alan Turing found himself powerfully attracted in 1928. He, Christopher Morcom, gave Turing a vital period of intellectual companionship — which ended with Morcom's sudden death in February 1930. 

Turing's conviction that he must now do what Morcom could not, apparently sustained him through a long crisis. For three years at least, as we know from his letters to Morcom's mother, his thoughts turned to the question of how the human mind, and Christopher's mind in particular, was embodied in matter; and whether accordingly it could be released from matter by death.
This question led him deeper into the area of twentieth century physics, first helped by A. S. Eddington's book The Nature of the Physical World, wondering whether quantum-mechanical theory affected the traditional problem of mind and matter.

Turing machine
In the years after college, Turing began to consider whether a method or process could be devised that could decide whether a given mathematical assertion was provable. Turing analyzed the methodical process, focusing on logical instructions, the action of the mind, and a machine that could be embodied as a physical form. Turing developed the proof that automatic computation cannot solve all mathematical problems. This concept became known as the Turing machine, which has become the foundation of the modern theory of computation and computability.  Turing took this idea and imagined the possibility of multiple Turing machines, each corresponding to a different method or algorithm. Each algorithm would be written out as a set of instructions in a standard form, and the actual interpretation work would be considered a mechanical process. Thus, each particular Turing machine embodied the algorithm, and a universal Turing machine could do all possible tasks. Essentially, through this theorizing, Turing created the computer: a single machine that can be turned to any well-defined task by being supplied with an algorithm, or a program.
Turing moved to the United States to continue his graduate studies at Princeton. He worked on algebra and number theory, as well as a cipher machine based on electromagnetic relays to multiply binary numbers. He took this research back to England with him, where he secretly worked part time for the British cryptanalytic department. After the British declared war in 1939, Turing took up full-time cryptanalytic work at Bletchley Park.

Enigma code
Turing made it his goal to crack the complex Enigma code used in German naval communications, which were generally regarded as unbreakable. Turing cracked the system and regular decryption of German messages began in mid-1941. To maintain progress on code-breaking, Turing introduced the use of electronic technology to gain higher speeds of mechanical working. Turing became an invaluable asset to the Allies, successfully decoding many German messages.  By the end of the war, Turing was the only scientist working on the idea of a universal machine that could plug into the potential speed and reliability of electronic technology. This led to the development of early hardware and the implementation of arithmetical functions by programming, and thus, computer science was born. Turing became well-regarded by the scientific community, as the director of the computing laboratory at Manchester University and an elected fellow of the Royal Society.

Turing test
Turing was also involved in philosophical debates over whether machines could think like a human brain. He devised a test to answer the question. He reasoned that if a computer acted, reacted and interacted like a sentient being, then it was sentient. [Related: What is The Singularity?]

In this simple test, an interrogator in isolation asks questions of another person and a computer. The questioner then must distinguish between the human and the computer based on their replies to his questions. If the computer can "fool" the interrogator, it is intelligent. Today, the Turing Test is at the heart of discussions about artificial intelligence.

Gross indecency
Turing had never been secretive about his homosexuality. He was outspoken and exuberant about his lifestyle, openly taking male lovers. When police discovered his sexual relationship with a young man, he was arrested and came to trial in 1952. Turing never denied or defended his actions, instead asserting that there was nothing wrong with what he did. The courts disagreed, and Turing was convicted of gross indecency. In order to avoid prison, Turing had to agree to undergo a series of estrogen injections.
He continued his work in quantum physics and in cryptanalytics, but known homosexuals were ineligible for security clearance. Bitter over being turned away from the field he had revolutionized, Turing committed suicide in 1954 by ingesting cyanide.
In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown publicly apologized for how the scientist was treated. And in December 2013, Queen Elizabeth II formally pardoned Turing. A British government statement said, "Turing was an exceptional man with a brilliant mind" who "deserves to be remembered and recognized for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science."   
It is occasionally important to note the reasons, the motives, the life experiences behind the discoveries that men make: the personality traits, the pertinent life experiences, the emotions that they experience, and so on.   Looking at Alan Turing’s early life, his love for mathematics was driven by a love for knowing, understanding, the world, and the mechanics that underlies it.   Simple intuitive questions really.   True learning comes from inquisitiveness and enjoying whatever it is that one does, the subject matter is secondary.   Frank Whittle learnt about flight from playing with model aircraft, and Benjamin Franklin learnt about electricity from playing with kites.   Men can learn from anything. Enjoyment comes first, whilst the field or subject matter that they learn it from are secondary really.  Reading all of the theories in the world won’t help a man to understand the world unless his Will to understand the world comes first.  Schopenhauer pointed this out in his essay ‘On Thinking for Oneself':
Men of learning are those who have done their reading in the pages of a book. Thinkers and men of genius are those who have gone straight to the book of Nature; it is they who have enlightened the world and carried humanity further on its way. If a man’s thoughts are to have truth and life in them, they must, after all, be his own fundamental thoughts; for these are the only ones that he can fully and wholly understand.
The will to understand the world is a personal action (i.e. in a bedroom rather than a classroom, in quiet rather than in debate) that grows by enjoyment and inquisitiveness.

It’s also important to note that during his childhood his teachers rated him as only ‘average to good’ and that ‘[h]e was criticised for his handwriting, struggled at English, and even in mathematics he was too interested with his own ideas to produce solutions to problems using the methods taught by his teachers.’ (Source).   Isaac Newton was also a weak child who performed poorly at school, yet look what he went on to achieve. This tells us a few things:
  • That teachers aren’t all that hot at spotting geniuses.
  • That great intellectuals can be model students who learn quickly (like Mozart and John Stuart Mill, who learnt to play the piano and Latin respectively while still toddlers) or average students who learn slowly (like Turing and Newton).
  • That personal enjoyment and inquisitiveness (or curiosity if you like) trump rote-learning any day of the week.
So if you or someone you know is rated as 'average' or 'moderate' by men of learning (teachers, doctors, professors, and other academia dwellers) think nothing of it, because they don't have a great track record of identifying first-rate minds.  Just keep on trucking and enjoying what you do, just like Alan Turing did.


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