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June 26, 2005 - Another Birthday Last Week

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Tuesday last would have been Jean-Paul Sartre's one-hundredth birthday, as mentioned here - and Thursday, June 23, 2005, would have been the ninety-third birthday of Alan Turing.


Turning was the famous mathematician who was born June 23, 1912 in London, in Paddington actually.  Think of him as the fellow who thought up the modern computer, unless you think the first one was Charles Babbage's "Differential Machine" back in 1822.  In any event, Turing was the bloke who led the "Enigma" team that broke the German codes in World War II.  That team used the machine he invented, the Colossus, which was the first really practical programmed computer.  It was back in 1937 that Turing suggested a theoretical machine, what has come to be called the Turing Machine - the basis of modern computing, and in 1950 he suggested what has become known as a "Turing's Test" - the criterion for recognizing intelligence in a machine.  Yes, that led to a whole lot of bad science fiction.

Of course Turing was, along with being a fine competitive runner, a homosexual, a crime in England back in those days - and in 1952 he was tried, convicted and sentenced to estrogen treatments.  In 1954 he died of cyanide poisoning, an apparent suicide.  Now the computer room at King's College, Cambridge, is named after Turing, who became a student there in 1931 and a Fellow in 1935.

You can find a whole bunch of biographical information about him here.

Andrew Sullivan, the gay conservative political writer, had this to say about Turing on his birthday –


Today is the late math genius's birthday. Turing was a brilliant Englishman, one of the founding fathers of computer science, and a patriot whose cracking of the Nazis' Enigma Code was critical to winning the war against Hitler. His amazing work was rewarded by being offered the choice in 1952 of choosing chemical castration or imprisonment for being gay. Two years later, a broken man, he killed himself. Today is a day for honoring him and the countless men and women over the centuries whose gifts and dignity were obliterated by ignorance, oppression and hate, hate that is still being excused and perpetrated today. May those of us lucky enough to have been born in their wake never forget what they went through, never forget the cruelty and evil they had to confront, and do everything we can to prevent these wounds being passed to the next generation.


It seems Sullivan is angry.  Hey, it's an Oscar Wilde thing.  Get over it.

But Sullivan also posts an email he received:


Turing might be known primarily as a mathematician and the founder of computer science, but he was truly a full-fledged scientist of incredible insight. A decade ago, as an undergraduate student, I stumbled across some articles on "Turing structures," which were Turing's theory as to how certain complex biological patterns (zebra stripes, cow spots, etc) could arise from relatively simple (and well-understood) chemical equations. Some 40 years after his theory, scientists discovered that his hypothesis had real-world application. Looking at his original paper, I was amazed at how clearly and concisely he wrote, with an obvious concern for the lay reader who lacked his mathematical brilliance.

For a long but entertaining read, I recommend Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon," which includes some highly enjoyable historical speculations on the breaking of Enigma.


Well, "Cryptonomicon" is a fine read, and was discussed in these pages two years ago here.

But let's think about what is being said here. 


Sullivan calls Turing a patriot, and Turing was one of the very few key men who helped defeat Hitler.  But Turing was gay and his own government gave him the choice of imprisonment or castration, and he, finally, took a third out, suicide.  No matter what he did, or invented, the evangelical right in power these days would hold him in contempt.  We're talking sin here.  We're the folks who dismiss people who can translate Arabic and other important languages, and discharge decorated soldiers willing to fight on, because they are gay (see this) - as there are more important things than winning.

And then what's this about how certain complex biological patterns could arise from relatively simple and well-understood chemical equations?  Our president tells us that "the jury is still out" on that wacky evolution theory, and more and more public, taxpayer-funded public schools are teaching "intelligent design" as a view of equal validity in all biology classes.  The idea behind "intelligent design" is of course the complex patterns are quite logical proof of the existence of God, or if not that, at least proof of an intelligent designer, although post-nasal drip and cancer might prove an intelligent but malevolent designer.  And this gay Brit who finally committed suicide can prove otherwise?  Who are you going to believe?

Were Turing still around he'd be one grumpy old man.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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