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Alan Turing: The Pioneer and Revolutionary

Alan Turning; Courtesy of The New York Times

Abstract: 

Alan Turing was a homosexual English mathematician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist, known for his famous work in cracking the Nazi Germany communication code called the Enigma code and developing the first blueprints to what became the modern computer. However, aside from his revolutionary work in these fields, Turing’s work and image have also had an enormously positive impact on LGBTQ rights.

Introduction

If you are reading this, then you have access to an electronic device that can spew back the answers to any question imaginable. Whether it is a computer, phone, or iPad, you possess one of the most powerful tools of our generation. For this, we can thank Alan Turing, the father of mathematical machine computing and artificial intelligence. With his breakthrough work in the creation of a computer and the decrypting of the German Enigma machine that saved thousands of lives during the second world war, Turing is now seen as a genius and visionary that shaped our current world. 1,3 With this huge focus on his work, many do not know that he was also an openly homosexual man whose image and work have pushed for queer rights throughout the world.

Who is Alan Turing?

Born on June 23, 1953, Turing was the son of a middle-class British family. 3 Ever since he was young, Turing was curious and constantly questioned the things around him. Given that at the time boys were taught to adhere to British Ideas, growing up, his mother was constantly worried that Turing would not be accepted into prestigious private schools and society. However, her worries were put at ease as Turing went on to graduate from the University of Cambridge with a degree in mathematics, King’s College, and Princeton University to receive a Ph.D. in mathematical logic. 1

Turing’s work started to be recognized during his fellowship at King’s College in 1934. At that time he explored the Entscheidungsproblem, also called the Decision problem. The goal of this question was to discover a technique that proved whether any mathematical statement within a mathematical system was provable or not. Creating this method would’ve been revolutionary as it would’ve reduced the long, straining, and tedious work mathematicians were constantly forced to do. After working on this for two years, Turing concluded that creating this method was impossible in his paper called “Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.” However, this period was not futile as it inspired the Turing Machine, also known as the blueprint of modern computer science.4

Here is a picture of a model of the Turing machine constructed in 2012 by Harvard University. 

This hypothetical machine would look at information in a coded form expressed using the numbers 1, 0, or a blank space on the tape.4 This machine would follow a “logbook”, “program” or “formula” embedded in it which would instruct it to read and changed the pattern of these numbers in the strip.4  The number at the end would be the solution to the mathematical problem. Surprisingly, this is how every modern computer works.

In the summer of 1938, he joined the Government Code and Cypher School.1  As a result, he moved to headquarters at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, to continue his work there. This is when he learned about the Enigma code, a technique used by the Nazi Germany Military to send and encrypt radio signals between German officials. In 1939, Turing created a very efficient machine that deciphers or decodes these messages.1  This technology was a tool that was used by the “Allies”, a coalition between the United States, Great Britain, France, China, and the Soviet Union during the fight against Fascism in World War Two. His achievement helped save thousands of lives and acted as a key tool for winning World War Two. For this reason, Turing was decorated as the Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1945.1 

In the same year, he became part of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and got exposed to the race to form the first “computer.”1  There, he created the blueprints for what he called the “Automatic Computing Engine” however, his team decided to go with a simpler design. Unfortunately, they lost this race to the University of Manchester whose design had been deeply inspired by the Turning machine. Later on, he moved to Manchester where he designed a programming system and manual. In 1951, he became part of the Royal Society of London.1 

Unusually for his time, Turing was also an openly gay man. He had not attempted to hide his sexuality from certain friend groups and, as a result of a liberal mindset, felt comfortable with his orientation. Unfortunately, in 1952 Turing was convicted for his homosexuality as these acts were seen as illegal. He was subject to a year of “hormone therapy” which involved synthetic estrogen injections, also considered “chemical castration.”

As a result of this, he was unable to go back to his groundbreaking work with technology, and Artificial Life. Unfortunately, on June 7, 1954, Turing was found dead in his home. The official ruling attributed this to suicide however, many speculate it was due to the hormone treatment he had received or an intended murder. 1 

How has he impacted the LGBTQ community?

Being open and comfortable with his sexuality signified a lot to those during his time and after. His image helped normalize what it meant to be homosexual, and highlight that orientation does not make anyone less adept or sociable. 

In 2013, Queen Elizabeth the Second gave a royal pardon to Allen Turning for unfair conviction.1 Furthermore, in 2017, legislation, often referred to as Turning’s Law gave posthumous pardons to those who had been convicted on the basis of their sexuality under laws that were abolished. Lastly, Turning became the first gay man to be featured on the British 50 euro banknote.2 These were all enormous steps towards finally recognizing and socially accepting members of this community. His name and image not only stand for that of mathematical advancement but also that of queer rights, resilience, and change.

Conclusion

Alan Turing laid the groundwork for much of what our modern world is now. With curiosity and determination, he was able to channel his intelligence to improve human life and answer some of the most complex questions of his time. Geniuses like him revolutionize our world and push it to the fullest potential it can have. In the words of Alan Turing, “We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.” It is now our turn to use his work as our basis to progress our society forward. 

References:

  1. “Alan Turing | Biography, Facts, & Education”. 2020. Encyclopedia Britannica
  2. “Alan Turing, Mathematician And LGBT Rights Icon, Features On £50”. 2020. Aljazeera.Com. https://www.aljazeera.com/ajimpact/alan-turing-mathematician-lgbt-rights-icon-features-50-190715121820584.html.
  3. “Alan Turing — Making Queer History”. 2020. Making Queer History. https://www.makingqueerhistory.com/articles/2017/7/28/6nt2oh6oec615zyxppza6o0v5vewiu.
  4. Turing Machines Explained – Computerphile. 2014. Video.

About The Author 

Andri Kadaifciu is a high school student based in Massachusetts, USA. She is interested in biomedical sciences, and is currently researching a range of diseases that target the control centers of the body. She loves to use writing as a way to spread knowledge and instill positive change. She is passionate about advocating for environmental sustainability and female voices in STEM.  

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