Alan Turing | Google | Science | United Kingdom

Alan Turing Turns 100: VIDEO

Alan-TuringHappy 100th birthday to Alan Turing: genius, probable aspie, gay man, and savior of Europe.

He was born in London and attended public school in Dorset, where he showed astounding aptitude for math. While there, he began some kind of relationship with fellow pupil Christopher Morcom, who shortly perished from bovine tuberculosis. The boy's death destroyed Turing's religious faith and cemented his belief in materialism, which would inform Turing's later work on computation and his musings on consciousness.

Turing went on to study at King's College, Cambridge, and at the Institute for Advanced Study, at Princeton, where he theorized what came to be known as the "Turing Machine." In 1938, Turing began work for the Government Code and Cypher School, where he concentrated on German Enigma machines -- code-making machines, which in the coming years allowed German military commanders to believe their electronic communications were private. They weren't, because Turing's prodigious cryptological genius had broken the Enigma machines wide open. In particular, he had co-created the Turing-Welchman "bombe," a machine that could rapidly test interpretations of secret Nazi codes and discard false ones. By the end of World War II, there were hundreds of "bombes" in service, and Winston Churchill credited Turing with having provided the single greatest contribution to the Allied war effort.

In the late 1940s, Turing did pioneering work on early computers at England's National Physical Laboratory and the University of Manchester, where he began to think seriously about the nature of intelligence and how it might be emulated by a machine. His writings on the subject gave us the "Turing Test." Towards the end of his life, Turing's mind turned towards solving pernicious problems in plant biology, which he did.

In 1952, Turing brought home a trick: a young man named Arnold Murray. The two had several dates before Murray and an accomplice burglarized Turing's home. Turing reported the matter to the police, to whom he divulged the nature of his and Murray's relationship. As homosexual acts were illegal in England, Turing was charged with and convicted of "gross indecency," and given a choice between imprisonment and chemical castration. Turing chose the latter, and was forced to begin a regimen of synthetic estrogen injections. Turing's government clearances were revoked.

In 1954, Turing died of cyanide poisoning. It was likely intentional -- he died eating an apple, which an inquest determined he'd probably poisoned -- though Turing's mother insisted otherwise.

Since his death, Turing has been written about and lionized endlessly -- almost guiltily. He's the subject of plays, movies, and biographies. Streets are named after him. The Alan Turing Award is the computing word's highest honor, and all modern computers can rightly be considered Turing's technological progeny. In 2009, in response to a petition by John Graham-Cumming, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued this apology to Turing's ghost:

... The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of gross indecency – in effect, tried for being gay.

His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones.

... Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him.

Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind … It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe's history and not Europe's present.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better.

Google is celebrating Turing's birthday with a mathy, gnomic tribute-doodle that asks visitors to spell "Google" using binary, and to arrive at the binary characters using a kind of digital mockup of what appears to be a primitive Turing bombe. Try solving it! If you can't, seek instructions AFTER THE JUMP ...




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  1. Is this officially Nerdgasm Day? My favorite author, Neal Stephenson, uses Alan Turing as a character in "Cryptonomicon". The subject of his homosexuality is addressed head-on in a very affectionate and entertaining way, puzzled out in a very logical fashion the way only a person with possibly mild Asepergers (or just deeply nerdy -- not everyone has to have a pathology!) can do.

    What a treasure, and what a horrible, shameful end.

    Posted by: NaughtyLola | Jun 23, 2012 10:09:23 AM

  2. Interesting to think what ideas he would have pursued if he had not died so young. One wonders how many countless other geniuses have been persecuted and destroyed by ignorance and bigotry over the years.

    Posted by: niles | Jun 23, 2012 10:11:30 AM

  3. What an amazing, brilliant gay man! I wish I had known about Turing and other gay heroes when I was a kid as I would have perhaps had the strength to come out earlier. I know I would have identified very strongly with Turing and his groundbreaking work.

    Students need to know the accomplishments of the LGBT community, including Turing, Milk, Jean King and so, so many others.

    Turing's work saved the lives of millions during the war and his ideas paved the way for the development of the modern information technology world we all know today.

    He is a hero and a pioneer and he should be remembered as a proud gay man hounded by an unfortunately biased society that today thankfully regrets its historical ignorance.

    Posted by: Xavi | Jun 23, 2012 11:02:09 AM

  4. How old was Arnold Murray when 40-year-old Alan Turning brought home this "trick" as you call him?

    Posted by: How old? | Jun 23, 2012 11:04:27 AM

  5. "a kind of digital mockup of what appears to be a primitive bombe" -- do people really not know what a turing machine is?

    Posted by: Reader | Jun 23, 2012 11:29:25 AM

  6. @How Old: I believe his "trick" was 19 years old.

    Posted by: Mark | Jun 23, 2012 11:39:48 AM

  7. @Reader, of course not. Why would they, unless they specifically study Computer Science? It's not a phrase that's in common parlance, despite your pretentions to the contrary.

    Posted by: NaughtyLola | Jun 23, 2012 11:47:39 AM

  8. There were several math geniuses that worked on decrypting German (and all Axis) communications during the war, not just Turing. He was instrumental in automating the process of decryption, though.

    The British Govt. continues to duck behind the issue of his conviction because they don't want to embarrass the royal family by asking for a pardon. I guess the issue will come to a head again after the queen and her husband dies.

    Posted by: anon | Jun 23, 2012 12:00:29 PM

  9. This proves the inhumanity to man that went on and still goes on today in some part of the world just because a man loves a man or a woman loves a woman. This gay geek possibly saved the world and for it he was tortured by his own people. In the West they were driven by their Christian religion to destroy this gay man to the point he killed himself. We need to hold these anti-gay Christians responsible for crimes against LGBT people in the West. They are hate groups who justify their barbarism using their religion. Now they are afraid that the under dog will rise up and do the same to them, that is why they are afraid. The anti-gay Christians are afraid that they will be exposed for the criminals they are for destroying the lives of countless LGBT people for a very long time and that they will be brought to justice for causing the death and destruction of these countless LGBT people. No wonder they are running scared. It has been proven that most criminals always run scared before they are caught and brought to justice.

    Posted by: Dave | Jun 23, 2012 12:01:03 PM

  10. Reader:

    Of course I do. Otherwise, I wouldn't have written a 700-word memorial of Alan Turing. That said, I have no idea what one looks like up close -- and since the Google-doodle's job seems to be to either prove or disprove theorems, I thought it likely that this was a mock-up specifically of a Turing bombe. Was I wrong?

    - BKT

    Posted by: Brandon K. Thorp | Jun 23, 2012 12:01:44 PM

  11. What they did to this man, especially after what he did to save his country from the Nazis, is unforgivable. I'm sure some power brokers could have saved him from the worse aspects of the punishment meted out, but they were by and large pieces of sh*t too.

    Posted by: ratbastard | Jun 23, 2012 12:10:23 PM

  12. Even though the British Government via then Prime minister Gordon brown belated "apologized" for it's atrocious actions against this extraordinary human being merely because of his sexuality - it still refused to pardon (rescind) the horribly wrongful charges brought against him in 1952. Statement issued recently by justice minister Lord McNall:

    "The question of granting a posthumous pardon to Mr Turing was considered by the previous Government in 2009.

    As a result of the previous campaign, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an unequivocal posthumous apology to Mr Turing on behalf of the Government, describing his treatment as "horrifying" and "utterly unfair". Mr Brown said the country owed him a huge debt. This apology was also shown at the end of the Channel 4 documentary celebrating Mr Turing's life and achievements which was broadcast on 21 November 2011.

    A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted.
    It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd-particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times."

    However, it seems that the British Government had little qualms or any such reservation on granted posthumous "pardons" for some WWI deserters - claiming that they were suffering from "Shell Shock" and should therefore be honored for their service with a full and retroactive absolution by the very government who still refuses to grant Alan Turing him the same consideration of final and rightful JUSTICE.

    Posted by: StevieLee | Jun 23, 2012 12:23:02 PM

  13. Umm, he didn't actually turn 100. Because he's dead.

    Posted by: Paul R | Jun 23, 2012 12:59:49 PM

  14. Reader is correct. It should be obvious to anyone reporting on Turing that the doodle employs the machine that bears his name.

    Sometimes I miss the old media. Before Fox.

    Posted by: Randy | Jun 23, 2012 1:40:31 PM

  15. I'm so glad to see Turing finally getting some recognition. Twenty years ago I wrote a musical performance for him and nobody I spoke to, gay or otherwise, had ever heard of him. It's a story destined for filmdom and mythology but it's important to remember him as a real man of great principles who lived a life of bravery among a sick and grotesque society that still permeates lives today. If there was a gay idol to admire for his intellect and integrity it's Alan Turing.

    Posted by: stranded | Jun 23, 2012 2:38:04 PM

  16. "Twenty years ago I wrote a musical performance for him"

    I have a 3/4 finished opera libretto about Turing buried in a box somewhere in my parent's garage. Glad to see I wasn't the only one thinking along those lines.

    Derek Jacobi played Turing in the excellent BBC TV movie "Breaking the Code", though he physically doesn't look much like Turing. Hugh Whitemore's play that the movie was based on gets a production now and then.

    Posted by: Henry Holland | Jun 23, 2012 2:50:01 PM

  17. @BKT The Turing Bombe was a complex machine created for the purpose of decrypting Enigma-encrypted messages. It was essentially a parallel processor that allowed the cryptographers at Bletchley Park to "reverse engineer" the several settings of the Enigma machine that were changed regularly.

    A Turing Machine is a generalized computer, with a very limited instruction set and memory that consists of an infinite tape upon which symbols can be written. The fascinating thing about TMs is that as simple as they are, they have been proven to be as powerful (if not as efficient) as any possible computer. In other words, given a long enough instruction set--and you're allowed as many as you want--a Turing Machine could emulate an iMac.

    Today's Google doodle is an implementation of a very small Turing Machine. Note that if you solve either set of puzzles, you can click on a little rabbit to see the doodler's implementation of an algorithm that iteratively generates the Fibonacci sequence. Very cool. For computer/math nerds.

    Posted by: Andrew | Jun 23, 2012 3:21:47 PM

  18. Oh I see "Dave"' the sock-puppet gay is here to attack the world's Christians, even those marching behind their liberal Protestant church banners (and in some instances, helping to pay the cost) in Pride parades. "Dave", your blind eye for the institutional misogyny and homophobia of Islam, tells us your real identity and agenda. How is the jihad going?

    Posted by: Contrarian | Jun 23, 2012 5:56:45 PM

  19. A new docudrama about Turing premiered in the UK last year and will soon be shown in the United States. Learn more here:

    Posted by: Matt | Jun 23, 2012 10:15:27 PM

  20. A movie about him is in development with Leonardo DiCaprio attached to star. Hopefully it'll get a green-light soon.

    Posted by: Scar2 | Jun 24, 2012 12:15:09 AM

  21. The posts today about a BBC report that Turing did not commit suicide.

    "Meanwhile, at a conference today in Oxford, England, professor Jack Copeland, an expert on Alan Turing, told surprised visitors that Turing's 1954 death was not a suicide, as has widely been assumed. According to a fascinating account in BBC News, Copeland questioned the evidence that was presented at the 1954 inquest into Turing's death, calling it insufficient to rule the death a suicide. 

    Turing died of cyanide poisoning and a half eaten apple was found near his bed. Legend goes that Turing was fascinated with the fairy tale of Snow White and poisoned himself with an apple to end the persecution he was getting for being gay. But Copeland argues that Turing ate an apple every night before bed (something others knew as well), the apple was never tested for cyanide, and there were no indications anywhere that Turing was anything less than upbeat and forward thinking. He even wrote a to-do list for the next week."

    Posted by: Joel | Jun 24, 2012 1:42:28 AM

  22. Thanks, Joel, for posting this. Copeland makes a very strong argument for accidental poisoning (through inhalation and not ingestion), details of which can be found by going to the BBC Home News page.

    Posted by: Robert | Jun 24, 2012 4:07:13 AM


    Posted by: steve | Jun 24, 2012 9:18:47 AM

  24. So the post about bird-flipping gay activists gets 80 comments,while the centennial celebration of an important gay hero gets barely half of them?

    tsk, tsk.. makes me wonder why the gays don't get more rights sooner these days.

    Posted by: NickG | Jun 25, 2012 6:59:10 AM

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