Sunday, January 22, 2012

Alan Turing Year

I am excited that 2012, the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth, will see many celebrations of his life and legacy.  It is hard to think of a scientist who has had more impact both on science and on our lives, but who still remains as unknown to the public, so I am glad Turing will be getting some much-deserved attention this year.

Alan Turing, photo copyright held by National Portrait Gallery in London

Alan Turing laid out the foundations of the study of computer science (in the process of solving Hilbert’s Entscheidungsproblem – no small feat on its own), contributed fundamentally to our understanding computation in nature, envisioned the future of intelligent machines, and saved millions of lives by helping shorten the length of World War 2.

Yet upon discovering Turing was gay (and convicting him for "indecency"), the British government took away his job, kept many of his contributions secret, and chemically castrated him, driving him to suicide.

After some long-overdue outrage, Gordon Brown issued an apology on Britain's behalf, albeit decades too late.  Now there are new petitions, asking for the British Government to grant Turing a pardon.  I have nothing against these efforts, but how Turing was treated is to our collective shame, and we should remember that these efforts are to make us, not him, feel better.  Turing knew he wasn't doing anything wrong and never needed condescending “pardoning” from politicians, nor does he need them any more after his death.  If the pardon is to send an apology to the homosexual community for their mistreatment, I’m sure the British government can think of something a little more direct.

I think a better way of honoring Turing is to make sure people know about his work – like we do of KeplerGalileoNewtonDarwinEinstein, and many of the other great scientists who revolutionized our world-views. Unfortunately there’s a lot of work to be done: even well-meaning articles trying to popularize Turing’s work mainly describe him as an accomplished code-breaker and World War 2 hero.  Turing did break codes, most notably the German Enigma machine, but calling Turing a code-breaker without mentioning his scientific impact is akin to calling Isaac Newton a treasurer, given his years as England's Master of the Mint.

So, this year, we academics will celebrate Turing’s great accomplishments by holding conferencesawards, and lectures in his honor.  There will be documentaries released about his life.  I’m sure an op-ed or two will be written in the newspapers.  But I also hope that reporters, lecturers, and especially teachers, will help the the public at large learn about this pioneer of the information age.

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