Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Genius: Alan Turing

Alan Turing's genius ushered in the digital age. Britain could have been at its centre, had it not treated him so cruelly, according to a report by Michael Hanlon in today's "Sunday Times". Turing's story is of course too well known to go into detail here but briefly he was the breaker of the Enigma code and credited with shortening the second world war by two years - but life for a gay man in post-war Britain was a furtive affair, homosexuality was still illegal. I remember being a child in the early 50s and reading about that court case involving Peter Wildblood and Lord Montagu and trying to understand why what they had done was so bad. Turing had met a young man whose friend had burgled his house so the naive professor reported him to the police - as a result one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century was arrested and charged with gross indecency. He was given a choice between going to prison or having treatment for his condition - which turned out to be chemical castration. He chose the latter and never truly recovered, committing suicide in 1954 by eating a poisoned apple (he had seen SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES several times!). It wasn't until 2009 the the British government, after a petition, made a formal apology for the appalling way he had been treated.

It now seems evident that Turing, Britain's almost forgotten genius, may have been nearly single-handedly responsible for the shape of the modern world, as well as aiding the end of the last war. Had he lived he may have been able to have jump-started a new industrial revolution. Google now says "without Alan Turing we would never have had Google, we would never have had the whole IT revolution; all the principles of computing go back to Alan Turing". So all modern computing: internet, mobile phones, laptops, email, Facebook, YouTube etc are a result of ideas published in his 1936 paper which showed how the manipulation of binary code using a series of simple logical operations could be put to an infinite number of uses, from computing prime numbers to forecasting the weather! No other technology has enriched more people more quickly in less than a generation. Turing thought that one day computers would become common and small enough to be carried around.

Of course the development of computing would have happened without Turing, but it would have happened later and far more slowly. It is fascinating to ponder what might have happened if he had lived - and such a shame his own life was so wasted. Like Oscar Wilde dying in his 40s in 1900 - if he had lived to enjoy old age he would have been a media star on radio and film, so too one can imagine an older Turing a flamboyant, confident pundit on television and perhaps the founder of a British Google or Apple ? but this brilliant, charming, odd, driven workaholic had a different fate. At least he is now being celebrated.

1 comment:

  1. I celebrate him every day.
    Using my computer, working on Computer code..
    But i agree it's a shame...