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Profiles In Mathematics: Alan Turing
by Jim Corrigan
Call Number: 510.92 T938Zc

English codebreaker, mathematician, biologist, and a founder of computer science, Alan Turing’s contributions are responsible for the technology we rely upon and take for granted.

When he was a teen, his teachers and parents criticized him for sloppy handwriting, being unorganized, and only spending time studying math and science. Few appreciated his genius until Turing reached university. At the age of 23, he wrote a paper known as “On Computable Numbers…” which established the concept of the modern computer.

During World War II, Turing played a decisive role in breaking German Enigma codes. He designed a machine, called a bombe, which decoded enigma messages faster than people could. Turing was also responsible for other major advances in codebreaking. Most historians believe that Turing and other codebreakers helped shorten the war by two years.

After the war and up to 1954, Turing focused on artificial intelligence, mathematical biology, and writing the first software programs. He created the Turing Test which is a test to see if a computer can fool an individual into thinking that it is human. If it can, the computer has proven that it is intelligent. He created the first computer chess game, even though at the time there was no computer powerful enough to run the program until years later. His last years focused on morphogenesis or how animals get their spots and stripes, and flowers and cones their patterns. He used computers to help mathematically explain these processes. Sixty years later, his theories were proven correct!

Alan Turing should have lived a long life where he would have made even more discoveries and received the recognition he deserved. Instead, in 1952, he was charged and convicted for ‘gross indecency’ when the police discovered his affair with his boyfriend. Homosexuality was illegal in Great Britain, as in the United States at this time. Turing’s security clearance was withdrawn and he could no longer be a consultant for the British code breaking center. During the trial, Turing insisted that he did nothing wrong and refused to apologize to the court. Since he showed no remorse, the judge made him choose between prison and being a subject in a medical experiment – having weekly injections of estrogen for one year. In order to keep working, Turing choose the injections. Little was known of the side effects of estrogen therapy. It was supposed to decrease male sex drive, but it did not for Turing. Instead, it caused depression, weight gain, impotency, and breast growth. Some of these effects were supposed to be temporary, but in many cases they were not. On June 7, 1954, Alan Turing died of cyanide poisoning at the age of 41.  Many believe it was suicide brought about being hounded by British Security, who now saw him as a security threat. Also, the depression brought about by the estrogen injections never went away. Others believe Turing accidently poisoned himself in his home lab and he was known for his sloppy lab work. Yet a few others think he may have been murdered by British Security or the CIA because of the secrets he discovered while he worked for British intelligence. Only one fact is certain, Alan Turing deserved more from the society he protected and enriched with his genius.

Amy P.
July 1, 2015
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