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Bletchley Park Turing First Day Cover

For my recent birthday I was given a wonderful present: a special UK stamp commemorating Alan Turing, who was born 100 years ago today. The stamp was issued by the Royal Mail not for the Turing centenary but as one of a series of special stamp sets to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

This stamp is particularly special because it is one of 1000 which originated at the Bletchley Park Post Office that were stuck onto a specially designed envelope (Turing, mathematics and patterns) and cancelled on the day the stamp was issued, 23 February 2012, using a special Bombe-themed postmark.

Historical anniversaries: are they worth celebrating?

It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that this year marks 100 years since Alan Turing was born, and that the actual anniversary of his birth is tomorrow. There is massive interest in this fact, both from specialist maths and computing outlets and the mainstream press. What, though, is the significance? You don’t need me to tell you that any anniversary is fairly arbitrary. The earth has gone a whole number of times around the sun since the event (within some margin of error). What, really, does this mean? And attributing special interest to one particular number of anniversaries just because it is a factor of ten or a neat fraction of one hundred is wholly meaningless.

So I don’t fall for anything like that, right? Wrong. For a couple of years now I have been tweeting a link to a biography of a mathematician who was born or died on each date to the Twitter feed @mathshistory on behalf of the British Society for the History of Mathematics. This generates some interest and I am delighted when it does so.

So can I justify anniversaries as having some tremendous significance or is this all just a cynical attempt to grab attention? To a great extent it is the latter. BSHM have a charitable aim to “promote and develop for the public benefit, awareness, knowledge, study and teaching of the history of mathematics”. If anniversaries are going to generate greater awareness of and interest in history, then I’m in.

For the daily tweeting I rely entirely on the excellent MacTutor History of Mathematics archive (so much so that some people think I run the site, or MacTutor runs the Twitter feed).

Basically, I choose a mathematician who was born or died on each day according to a bunch of constraints. People sometimes tweet and say “why have you chosen X; what about Y?”

The basic ground rules are: one tweet per day, each mathematician once per year. This causes some conflicts that people don’t naturally understand. For example, on 23rd January I tweeted about James Lighthill, who MacTutor describes as “one of the foremost English applied mathematicians of his day”. Why, wondered Twitter user @gemmarobles, was I ignoring David Hilbert, also born that day? Well, I included Lighthill on his birthday because he died on the same day that Lexis was born, who MacTutor report as “initiating the study of time series”. And Lexis died on the day Galois was born. And although there are a few mathematicians who were born or died on 14th February, when Hilbert died, there is no clear issue with placing Hilbert on that day. So why did I choose Lighthill over Hilbert? Because Galois was born on the day Lexis died. At some point, an arbitrary decision needs to be made and this has consequences down the line.

Apart from these basic constraints, I have a bunch of extra rules. I am doing this to try to generate interest, so I try include some variety. I like to try to tweet from different eras and different mathematical areas on adjacent days if possible. I favour time periods when few dates are known or cultures without many mathematicians in the database because these have fewer opportunities to get picked. I also think it is good to highlight women in mathematics or other important issues such as race or disability, again if possible. It is also pleasing to make people aware of the mathematical contributions of mathematicians who are better known for something else, or people who were not principally mathematicians but made a contribution. Anyone who meets some of these criteria might see favour over other mathematicians associated with the same day.

Still, much as I like to include mathematicians that people won’t know and highlight time periods and issues they haven’t thought about, it is the big hitters, Euler and Gauss and other well known names, who get the large numbers of retweets and interest. So I include them because that is how followership of the account grows and links to maths history content spread. If people are only going to take an interest on a famous anniversary, at least they are taking an interest at all.

Do I think the world has gone over the top on Turing? I do think there is value to be had. Leveraging Turing’s name and the interest generated by his centenary to attempt to do some good for gay rights is a noble undertaking (although I have my doubts over the precise details). Using Turing to try to generate extra interest in the history of mathematics, cryptography and computing is worthwhile. If we aren’t going to get people’s attention at the big 100, when will we? I remember seeing a lecture by Robin Wilson where he lamented the relative lack of interest in the 300th anniversary of Euler’s birth in 2007, which could have been a great opportunity to raise the profile of mathematics in wider culture. It’s clear to see why the 305th anniversary this year just hasn’t got the same traction.

However, I worry about the others involved with the war work at Bletchley Park or the early development of computers who are getting eclipsed, and, for that matter, all the other history of maths and computing stories that are worth telling but can’t get the attention. Celebrating the big names supports the idea that advances are made in giant leaps by great men (mostly men), whereas history is constantly being made in small steps. On top of this, I worry that the attention people are giving Turing is fairly superficial. People aren’t, I think, gaining a wider understanding of the historical context into which Turing fits, or of the place of mathematics research in our culture. And I worry that this interest won’t be sustained. What happens in the cold light of Sunday morning when it’s all over? Perhaps we can sustain some interest until the end of the centenary year but will ‘Turing100’ have a lasting impact on people’s minds? Turing died in 1954. Will we ignore him again until 2054?

Anyway, must dash. I have to draft my exciting Turing centenary day post for tomorrow.

Reading around the Alan Turing Pardon

I have a piece in this week’s Pod Delusion episode 123 at 45:00 on the pardon for Alan Turing.

Here are links to some of the bits I talked about in this.

I spoke about concerns of overdoing the Turing celebrations, saying: what Turing did was brilliant, but we should celebrate what Turing actually did, not some imagined feats, and we should not forget others in doing so. You can read more about this and find out about the article which suggested that had Turing lived then Silicon Valley might have been started in the UK at ‘Beware the Alan Turing fetish‘ by John Graham-Cumming.

Turing was convicted under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. In 2009 Gordon Brown issued an official apology for the way Turing was treated. Read about the official Government apology in ‘PM’s apology to codebreaker Alan Turing: we were inhumane‘. Read how the apology came about in ‘How Alan Turing Finally Got a Posthumous Apology‘ by John Graham-Cumming.

Now there is a current e-petition calling for a pardon for Turing. John Leech MP issued an early day motion calling for this pardon. (I also mentioned the current e-petition calling for a pardon for Oscar Wilde.)

Asked a question in House of Lords, a Government Justice Minister said “a posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate”. Read the text of Lord McNally’s statement.

I’ve seen the refusal to pardon Turing described as “homophobic” and an “act of malice“. Particularly, the complaint is that Turing is still seen as a criminal in the eyes of the law.

John Graham-Cumming on ‘Why I’m not supporting the campaign for a pardon for Alan Turing‘, in which he writes about the Protection of Freedoms Bill, which “specifically allows for the disregarding of convictions under the old law that was used against Turing”.

To honour Turing I suggested you might attend events under the Alan Turing Year banner, or donate to Bletchley Park’s Action This Day! fundraising campaign.

This piece used audio from episodes 84 and 85 of the Pulse-Project Math/Maths Podcast.

Macro October

Longer term readers of this blog who follow me on Twitter may realise that I have posted considerably fewer posts here since I’ve been ‘micro-blogging’. The podcasts resumed in October, and the show notes posts were regular through the autumn. The non-podcast blog posts in between were less common. Here is a catchup post for October and an attempt at a promise to update more regularly.

The slide began over the summer. Back in September I noticed the Turing apology on Twitter the day after it happened, yet I didn’t get around to posting a blog post for 3 weeks, as “Turing apology“.

I resumed my IMA visits on 7 October 2009 with a trip to UEA, where I recorded podcast episode 47 with Mark Blyth. This event should have given me something to write about but in fact I didn’t get around to posting a blog post about it when the next day I went to NTU and gave my careers talk twice. This meant I had three visits to write about by the time I had been to Liverpool the following week, giving my careers talk at Liverpool John Moores, where I was asked about placements. One student felt that what I was saying about maths graduates having the skills needed by business was wrong because at a recent careers fair she had been told by several employers that all they required was a 2:1 or above and the degree subject didn’t matter. I tried to point out that the job of a recruiter at a careers fair was a marketing one, generally to attract as many applicants as possible. This, I claimed, doesn’t affect your chances of getting the job. And it depends what type of job you are going for.

Following this I met Andrea Donafee, who spoke to me for podcast 48, and to Sebastien Guenneau about his work in invisibility cloaks at the University of Liverpool for podcast 50. At Liverpool, I spoke on careers at lunchtime and on puzzles in the evening. The puzzles talk was organised by Joel Haddley and he had invited an audience of sixth formers without telling me, which was a bit scary! But the talk seemed to go well and I got some positive comments at the end. I was pleased to hear Joel sent off an IMA application form.

By total coincidence, the 42nd week of the year was also the anniversary of the publication of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and the week I released episode 42. The number fact for the episode, of course, referred to the Guide.

The following week, I spoke at and took a stall to a careers fair at Kingston. I spent most of the day giving the IMA’s new Assistant Director the benefit of my views on all aspects of my work, which was quite fun. But something wasn’t right that day with my talk – I don’t know if it was nerves at being watched by the new Assistant Director, but my timings during my careers talk weren’t right and the whole thing felt a little flat.

By sharp contrast, I was much happier with my careers talk performance at Lancaster the following week. From my Twitter post: “Got the audience reactions I hope for: they gasp, they laugh, they consider!” Later that day I gave my cryptography talk to the Maths and Statistics Society (MASS) at Lancaster, which was recently formed with an IMA grant. The next day I travelled into Manchester and spoke at Manchester Metropolitan University. My careers talk went well there and I even overheard a student at the end sounding surprised saying: “I’m actually glad I came”! I attended my second Calculating Careers Fair at Manchester, which was a good experience again. In the evening I went to Bolton and gave my careers talk one more time before heading home. Despite some exhaustion and questions I didn’t know how to answer about further study, I think this went well. One the way home, the worse for a busy couple of days, I wrote my piece for Mathematics Today in December and was worried I might have “gushed” a little. You can read this as “Improving graduate skills through an undergraduate conference” and judge for yourself. The topic of that piece was the Tomorrow’s Mathematicians Today conference, the provisional programme for which has recently been announced. The conference is supported by the IMA and takes place at the University of Greenwich on 6 February 2010. The deadline for registration is Thursday 28 January 2010.

Also in October I was shown a room at the University of Nottingham which offers recording of lectures at the press of a button, a facility I ultimately used to record the lecture I gave on cryptography for the History of maths and x in December.

At the end of the month, I noticed that episode 40 of the podcast had been released on the first anniversary of episode 1 of the podcast – to the day. I will have to try to remember 4 October in future!

This takes us into November, and I will leave that for another post.

Turing apology

With the news that Alan Turing has received an official apology from the government over the terrible treatment he received due to his homosexuality quickly vanishing into the distant past, I decided to dig out a couple of photos I took on a visit earlier in the year. I ran a stall at a postgraduate conference at the University of Surrey. The University is in Guildford where Alan Turing lived as a child and he is honoured by a bronze statue outside the Austin Pearce Building where the conference took place. My photo of this and the corresponding plaque are below:

Alan Turing Statue

Read the apology on the Number 10 website, watch a BBC News video giving some background and listen to a short piece from the Today programme. You can read “How Alan Turing Finally Got a Posthumous Apology” by petition organiser John Graham-Cumming.