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Turing Round Up


Today is the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing’s birth. Turing did not just one but several hugely important things during his life, none of which were properly appreciated while he lived or for a long time after he died. In the run up to his centenary, a campaign to make people aware of Turing and the enormous impact he made on so many fields, and most importantly to clear his reputation, has been more successful than anyone could have hoped. Turing is now rightly recognised as one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century, as a victim of persecution, and as a war hero.

The Turing Centenary campaign has been so successful that we’ve decided there’s no need for us to write a biography of Turing, or to highlight some obscure thing he did, or really anything. Literally hundreds of pieces have been written, by some of the greatest writers and thinkers in the world, covering every detail of Turing’s life from his school days to his more obscure mathematical work, up to the circumstances leading to his suicide.

So instead, we’ve collected together some of the best exposition, reporting, and creative expression we’ve found to commemorate the life of Alan Turing.

Google is marking the day with a brain-stretching interactive puzzle Doodle which simulates a Turing machine.

The BBC has deployed its coverage-cannon to the Turing Centenary, producing 18 news articles this month on Turing, as well as at least five radio and television programmes devoted to him, along with mentions in many others. Highlights include our own Matt Parker’s Radio 4 documentary The Turing Solution, focussing on Turing’s post-war contribution to the first real stored-program computers, and a week-long series of articles written by luminaries such as Vint Cerf, whose birthday is also today. Happy birthday Vint. An intrepid reporter asked attendees of Turing’s 100th Birthday Party, “what was Alan Turing’s greatest contribution?

The Science Museum in London has opened an exhibition called Codebreaker – Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy, and produced a very nifty Facebook timeline of Turing’s life to go along with it. Reviews of the exhibition abound – The Economist calls it “an illuminating tour through the accomplishments of one of the 20th century’s brightest minds”, while the Guardian has published a video interview with the exhibition’s curator.

Also in the Guardian, the chair of the centenary celebrations Prof S. Barry Cooper has written a series of posts for the Northerner blog, covering the bullying of geeks in Britain, chess-playing computers and the Turing family.

Another article by Prof Cooper, titled Alan Turing: 10 ideas beyond Enigma is available on ZDNet UK. It’s a fantastic piece talking about the raw ideas that Turing had and which were so important, but are often overlooked in favour of more easily-explained things like the cracking of Enigma.

John Graham-Cumming, the instigator of the successful campaign for an apology from the British Government about their treatment of Alan Turing, took over a large portion of New Scientist with an “Instant Expert” section on Turing. A rather shorter and smaller-scale campaign to make the content freely available online was also successful, so you can read about the last Enigma machine, universal computation, artificial intelligence and much more after registering on their site.

Although the universal computer, or Turing machine, is an abstract concept, many people have felt the need to make it real. Jeroen van den Bos and Davy Landman of the Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica in Amsterdam have created a LEGO Turing machine

In fact, there are so many videos of “real Turing machines” that I’ve created a YouTube playlist of some of the ones that stood out.

But the machine that most succinctly, and most beautifully, demonstrates the brilliance of the universal computer concept is the 100 Punchcard Turing Machine. 100 Jacquard punchcards, fed into a clockwork computer, are all that are needed to compute anything in the world.

Everyone who knows about Alan Turing knows that he worked on cracking Enigma at Bletchley Park. Almost everyone knows that he had something to do with founding the field of computer science. But not very many people at all seem to know about Turing’s work on morphogenesis: the mechanism by which shapes and patterns are produced in nature. Thomas Woolley and James Grime have recorded a short video explaining what it’s all about

and Thomas points the interested learner to Prof Philip Maini’s “excellent” 45-minute talk, “Turing’s theory of developmental pattern formation

We’ve barely penetrated the surface of the flood of Turinganalia. The Aperiodical itself has a large selection of Turing stories in its archives, to be perused at your leisure. Of course, there’s been a lot of nonsense and overstated claims published as people get carried away with the celebrations, which we won’t bother linking to, but there’s a huge amount of really interesting new content jostling for attention; Google News reports 2,200 articles published mentioning Turing in the last 24 hours (up by 400 from the figure when I checked an hour ago, and bound to increase again by the time this post is published).

So finally, the one link you simply must visit today is the official site of the Alan Turing Year. It has an enormous number of links to Centenary events happening all around the world, as well as competitions, the various ongoing petitions, exhibitions, videos, audio and even a selection of Turing-inspired music. You might agree with those who think that the Cult of St Alan is getting out of hand and the reporting verging on hagiography, but it can’t be denied that he was a very, very interesting man.

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About the author

  • Mathematician, koala fan, Aperiodical editor. Usually found paddling in the North Sea, or fiddling with computers.

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