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June 20 2012

Alan Turing: the short, brilliant life and tragic death of an enigma

Codebreaker and mathematician Alan Turing's legacy comes to life in a Science Museum exhibition

A German Enigma coding machine on loan from Mick Jagger and a 1950 computer with less calculating power than a smartphone but which was once the fastest in the world, are among the star objects in a new exhibition at the Science Museum devoted to the short, brilliant life and tragic death of the scientist Alan Turing.

"We are in geek heaven," his nephew Sir John Turing said, surrounded by pieces of computing history which are sacred relics to Turing's admirers, including a computer-controlled tortoise that had enchanted the scientist when he saw it at the museum in the 1951 Festival of Britain. "This exhibition is a great tribute to a very remarkable man," Turing said.

"My father was in awe of him, the word genius was often used in speaking of him in the family," he said, "but he also spoke of his eccentricity, of how he cycled to work at Bletchley wearing a gas mask to control his hayfever so the local people he passed dreaded that a gas attack was imminent."

The exhibition, marking the centenary of Turing's birth, tackles both the traumatic personal life and the brilliant science of the man who was a key member of the codebreaking team at Bletchley Park, and devised the Turing Test which is still the measure of artificial intelligence.

Turing was gay, and in 1952 while working at Manchester University, where he had a relationship with a technician called Arnold Murray, he was arrested and charged with gross indecency. He escaped prison only by agreeing to chemical castration through a year's doses of oestrogen – which curator David Rooney said had a devastating effect on him, mentally and physically. In 1954 he was found dead in his bed, a half eaten apple on the table beside him, according to legend laced with the cyanide which killed him.

His mother insisted that his death was accidental, part of an experiment to silver plate a spoon – he had previously gold plated another piece of cutlery by stripping the gold from a pocket watch – with the chemicals found in a pot on the stove. However the coroner's report, also on display, is unequivocal: Turing had consumed the equivalent of a wine glass of poison and the form records bleakly "the brain smelled of bitter almonds".

The death is wreathed with conspiracy theories, but Rooney's explanation for the apple is pragmatic: not an obsession with the poisoned apple in the Disney film of Snow White, as some have claimed, but a very intelligent man who had it ready to bite into to counteract the appalling taste of the cyanide.

His nephew said both the prosecution and death were devastating for the family, but they were delighted by the formal public apology offered in 2009 by then prime minister Gordon Brown.

The campaign for a posthumous pardon is more problematic he said, speaking as a senior partner at the law firm Clifford Chance.

"So many people were condemned properly under the then law for offences which we now see entirely differently. One would not wish to think that Turing won a pardon merely because he is famous, that might be just a step too far. But the suggestion that there might be some reparation by having him appear on the back of a bank note – that might indeed be good."

The exhibition includes the only surviving parts of one of the 200 bombe machines which ran day and night decoding German messages at sites around the country, each weighing a ton and all broken up for scrap after the war. The components were borrowed from the government intelligence centre at GCHQ after tortuous negotiations. Although visitors will not realise it, a short interview filmed at GCHQ is even more exceptional, the only film for public viewing ever permitted inside the Cheltenham complex.

By 1950 when the Pilot Ace computer, on which Turing did key development work, was finally running at the National Physical Laboratory, he had moved to Manchester, impatient at the slow pace of work in the postwar public sector. It is displayed beside a panel of tattered metal, part of a Comet, the first civilian passenger jet, which exploded over the Mediterranean killing all on board: the computer ran the millions of calculations to work out why.

Rooney says the exhibition is also intended to destroy the impression of Turing as a solitary boffin: it includes many of the people he worked with, who regarded him with awe and affection. When he came to see the computer tortoises in 1951 – they responded to light and scuttled back home when the bulb was switched on in their hutches – he also managed to break a game playing computer by recognising the work of a protege and cracking the algorithm on the spot: the computer flashed both "you've won" and "you've lost" messages at him, and then shut itself down in a sulk.

In an interview filmed for the exhibition his last researcher, Professor Bernard Richards of Manchester University, the man he was due to meet on the day of his death, says: "Turing struck me as a genius. He was on a higher plane."

Codebreaker – Alan Turing's life and legacy, free at the Science Museum, London, until June 2013.


guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


March 26 2012

Grow a sunflower to solve unfinished Alan Turing experiment

Manchester Science Festival sows the seeds of a very bright idea to honour the computer genius in his centenary year

If ever there was a man for bright ideas, it was Alan Turing, and he would have loved this.

The whole of Manchester is being invited to plant sunflowers as part of the current centenary celebrations of his birth; and not just as a sentimental gesture.

Fittingly in the tradition of the great computer scientist, whose vital role in World War II's Enigma code-cracking was over-shadowed by his public disgrace for having gay sex, the event is practical and scientific. The Museum of Science and Industry and partners, including Manchester University where Turing made extraordinary strides in computer development after the war, are trying to conclude an experiment which he left unfinished.

Fascinated by numerical sequences and geometric patterns, Turing speculated that both the petals and densely-packed seedheads of sunflowers include striking examples of the Fibonacci number series – a mathematical phenomenon which is explained much more clearly than I could ever manage on this link here. When he was prosecuted in 1952, humiliated and put on a primitive course of hormone treatment, or chemical castration, this project joined many others in gathering dust.

Here's the sequence: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89…. Can you work out the next number?

Although he had been awarded an OBE, the significance of Turing's wartime work was unknown to his colleagues at Manchester university or the public at large. His death in 1954 from cyanide poisoning has been widely assumed to have been suicide although this was never officially confirmed.

His interest in Fibonacci numbers in sunflowers, and other plants, stemmed in part from his own observations and partly from his knowledge of the history of science. The excellent Turing Centenary website has a lovely drawing of him by his mother, opting out of a hockey match at school and in the words of her pencilled caption: 'watching the daisies grow.' Most daisies have 34, 55 or 89 petals – the 9th, 10th, and 11th numbers in the Fibonacci series.

Turing knew about Leonardo da Vinci's interest in the subject and acknowledged the work of a Dutch scientist, J C Schoute, who studied the patterns on 319 sunflower heads just before the Second World War. That was cited in a paper Turing wrote in 1951 about patterns and sequences in biology which he also enjoyed testing on his fledgling computers.

Then it all ended. So the Turing Sunflower Project is taking it up, with a database which will be thousands strong. Professor Jonathan Swinton, visiting professor in computational systems at Oxford University, says that the numerology could be important to understanding how plants grow. He says:

Other scientists believe that Turing's explanation of why this happens in sunflowers is along the right lines but we need to test this out on a big dataset, so the more people who can grow sunflowers, the more robust the experiment.


The project's manager Erinma Ochu says:

We hope to provide the missing evidence to test Turing's little-known theories about Fibonacci numbers in sunflowers. It would be a fitting celebration of the work of Alan Turing.


The results of the experiment will be a highlight of Manchester Science Festival in October. Details on how to register for seeds are here. Tweets on progress are here, and a blog on the festival, sunflowers included, is here.


guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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