A starry sky in a clear night, that is one way how someone who stares deep into the human history may describe it. Present we live in is bounded and encompassed in its wraps, navigating us into unknown future that lies beyond the horizon. Look closely, for you may find starry patterns of caution, lessons and achievements humanity has accumulated over millennia. You may find great lMTE5NDg0MDU1MTUzMTE2Njg3eaders, visionaries and idealists shining forever bright in the void of blackness, even though the flame of their lives have extinguished long time ago. Every once in a while you will spot some stars brighter and dominant than others, reminiscent of the pioneers who have single handedly steered the course of humanity toward new dimensions. It is among these you will find the likes of Newton, Einstein, Galileo and Turing. Even though people are familiar with the first three names, Turing is more of an unsung hero and a tragic character.
Alan Turing was a pioneering British Computer Scientist, Logician, Cryptanalyst and a Theoretical
Biologist. His contributions to the field of Computer Science was pivotal in the context of formalizing the concept of algorithms and computation. He is more than often attributed the title of Father of Modern Computer Science. Even today his brain children like Turing Machine, Turing Test and Turing Patterns remains an actively explored domain in Logic and Computer Science. Apart from the recognition as a mathematician and a logician, Turing is also a celebrated War Hero in Britain for his exceptional contribution in analyzing German cryptograms during second world. In the process of breaking into Enigma, the electro mechanical device on top of which the whole German military communications depended on for security, Turing made remarkable breakthroughs which culminated in building the World’s first electromechanical computer known as “Bombe”.
Alan Mathison Turing was born in 23rd June 1912 in Maida Vale, London as the second child of Julius Mathison Turing and Ethel Sara Turing. The family Turings, even though not wealthy, was of a higher-middle-class descendance with strong emphasis on English class system. A value Alan Turing would soon challenge with his strictly autonomous and independent behavior. Due to its nature as an Indian Civil Service official, the occupation of Turing’s father kept his parents abroad most of the time. In those periods Turing and his elder brother had to spend their time with foster families.
The intellect of Turing started showing up even during the early stages of his life. At a very young age he displayed an extraordinary drive and passion towards Science and Mathematics. He was enrolled at St. Michael’s, a day school, when he was six. Many of educators who came across quickly realized the potential of this young prodigy. Consequently he was chosen eligible to attend Sherborne School, a reputed public school in the market town of Sherborn. His first day at the school coincide with the General Strike of 1929 in England, when coal workers led a strike for a continuous 9 days against wages cut-offs. As a testimony to his devotion to studying Turing rode, determined, a daunting 97 kilometers to school. However in school his preoccupation
with Mathematics and Science did not impress the educators who stressed more on studying classics as with the standard of all public schools in England back then. Even so Turing continued, striking an extraordinary list of accomplishments. When he was 16 he came across the works of Einstein, which he grasped rapidly and even extended some of the ideas further.
It was during the time he spent at Sherborne, Alan Turing formed a deep relationship with a colleague called Christopher Morcom, who is attributed as Turing’s “first-love”. They shared a deep connection on intellectual interests between them, which would become the driving force for the future works of Turing when Morcom’s life was cut short by tuberculosis in February 1930. The tragedy left a deep rift in Turing’s life, who determined to continue the work they started together as a tribute to Morcom.
Finishing Sherborne, Turing studied from 1931 to 1934 at King’s College, Cambridge graduating a first-class honours in Mathematics. Shortly afterwards he was elected as a fellow at King’s at a young age of 22. Shortly afterwards Turing published first of the list of his seminal work to come. In order to solve the problem posed by the legendary mathematician David Hilbert in 1921 on a paper titled “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem”. In his proof Turing reformulated the Kurt Godel’s arithmetic-based formal logic with much intuitive and simple hypothetical device which is now called “Turing Machine”. A Turing Machine is a generalized computer wich h manipulates a string of data according to a certain predefined set of instructions specified by an algorithm. Turing proceeded on to prove that such a machine could be used to solve any problem provided it can be represented using an algorithm. Then with some unprecedented use of technique he proved that there was no possible way of deciding algorithmically whether a given Turing machine will ever halt, or stop executing, for a given algorithm and input. Even though unintentional, the concept of a Universal Computational Machine introduced by the Turing Machine quickly attracted the attention of academics of Formal Logic and Mathematics. Today it is the core object in the study of theory of computing.
Turing’s next great achievement comes outside the realm of academics. After Britain formally declared war against Germany, the Second World War was soon at her doorstep. German forces were technologically much superior to the British counterparts. Thousands of famed German scientists and engineers were backing the Third Reich in its plan for World Domination. One such prized processions of the German military was an electro-mechanical device the allied dubbed Enigma. The purpose of the machine was to encipher or obscure German communications from the allies. Initially the Polish cryptographers broke into Enigma traffic through a flaw in usage procedure. But as soon as Germans changed their protocols the existing techniques were all rendered obsolete
. The only way to break into Enigma was to find out specific settings it uses for encryption, but the complication came from the fact that the machine could be set up to a staggering 158 million million million ways. Brute forcing all the combinations was not simply feasible. It was at this critical point the genius of Alan Turing began saving lives.
Using elegant statistical methods pioneered by Turing like “Crib-based cryptanalysis” and the ingenious computing device called “Bombe”, British cryptographers managed to break into German communication traffic. Information gleaned from these decryptions proved to be decisive in many critical engagements like Battle of Atlantic. By most estimates the cracking of Enigma might have shorten the Wat at least by two to three years. For 75 years Turing’s along with thousand other cryptanalysts’ contribution would remain a closely guarded secret implying the importance of those techniques to the British national security.
After war Turing worked a few years at National Physical Laboratory where he designed Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) based on stored program architecture, concept which would later be developed by Von Neumann to become the modern computers. Soon he would join a renowned and fellow mathematician Max Newman at Manchester Computers. It was there that Turing picked up an interest in Mathematical Biology and Artificial Intelligence. Much of work produced by him during this era explored Intelligence in abstract mathematical forms. He proposed an experiment called “Turing Test” which would allow a human being to determine whether he is interacting with a machine or an intelligence, by which to build a standard to classify whether a machine is “intelligent” or not. His contributions to Mathematical Biology concerns with Morphogenesis which still remains valid even though they were published years before the discovery of the structure of DNA.
Misfortune and infamy never discriminate. In 1952 Turing was charged with “Gross Indecency” for homo-sexuality. After a trial on 31st March he was offered imprisonment or probation under the condition that he would accept chemical castration from hormonal treatment. He accepted the latter which rendered him permanently impotent. Soon after his conviction all clearances he was allowed
on classified cryptographic information were revoked barring him from his position as a Cryptographic Consultancy. Two years later he was found dead on 8th June 1954 on his bed. A post-mortem inquest determined the cause of death as Cyanide poisoning. It is unclear to this date whether he has committed suicide or was poisoned as a result of his ongoing experiments on electroplating which uses cyanide in the process. Yet it remains plain that during his lifetime he was defamed, humiliated and chastised for his free-will. For years he remained a convicted criminal in front of the justice system he fought to protect. It took another 50 years for the British to offer a public apology on the “appalling way he was treated”, as a result of an internet campaign. In 2013 Queen Elizabeth II granted him a posthumous pardon clearing his status.
Alan Turing was undoubtedly someone who belonged way ahead of his time, maybe even today. For the centuries to come, as long as human beings use computers, we will forever be indebted to him and his legacy.