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Alan Turing: A Life

Updated on March 6, 2015
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Alan Turing

Alan Turing is famous for his work in breaking the codes used by the German army's enigma machine. Using his mathematical genius, Turing, (aided by several colleagues,) managed to make sense of the complex codes created by the device, providing access to key intelligence reports and messages. Despite his tireless work, Alan Turing was treated deplorably by the state: in 1952 he was charged with homosexual acts, (homosexuality then being illegal in the UK,) and was forced to decide between a prison sentence and chemical castration. Turing took his own life in 1954.

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Turing's early years

Alan Turing was born in London Paddington on the 23rd June, 1912 to parents Julius and Ethel Sara. Julius worked for the Indian Civil Service, a fact which meant that he, (and his wife,) were often on the move, travelling from their home in the UK to India, (whilst leaving their children in the care of another couple.) Even in his early years, Alan Turing's genius for mathematics was obvious: as a child, Alan was extremely curious, formulating his own experiments and analyzing the growth of flowers rather than engaging in commonplace activities with his school-friends.

Alan Turing's education

At the age of 13, Alan Turing attended Sherborne School. Here, the genius obvious in his youth flourished: Alan was able to complete complex calculations in his head without being taught the basic rudiments of calculus and, he was able to read, perceive and embellish upon theories presented in Einstein's work. Though gifted with great mathematical ability, Turing's teachers often stated that it would hinder, rather than help, him, suggesting he should broaden the spectrum of his knowledge.

Whilst attending Sherborne School, Alan fell in love with a fellow pupil, Christopher Morcom. Christopher's premature death in 1930 left Alan heartbroken. In the wake of Christopher's death, Alan adopted an atheist worldview, concluding that materialism, (rather than dualism,) was a better explanation for life.

Between 1931-1934, Alan Turing studied for an undergraduate degree in mathematics at King's College Cambridge. On completion of his degree, Alan was awarded a first-class honours. Having gained his degree, Alan continued with his studies, being awarded a PhD, (from Princeton University,) in 1938.

After achieving his doctorate, Alan returned to King's College to engage in learned lectures and debates with fellow academics, (most notably, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.) At the same time, Turing started working, on a part time basis, for the Government Code and Cypher School.

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Turing the code breaker

During the Second World War, Alan Turing used his exceptional mathematical skills to help decrypt German codes. Within a few weeks of starting work, Turing referred his colleagues to an electromechanical device that was able to effectively decode enigma.

In 1942, Turing devised the Turingery, (a technique which was capable of deciphering secret messages sent by the Germans.) Turing's technical contributions were enormous, with some suggesting that his work shaved two years off of the Second World War.

After the war

After the Second World War, Alan used his mathematical talents to design an early computer. He also spent time researching, (and writing about,) artificial intelligence. To try to define artificial intelligence, Turing devised the Turing test, during which a computer would be asked questions by a human. If the human typing the questions was unable to distinguish between the computer's responses and those of another person, Turing concluded that the computer would be showing signs of thinking.

Alan Turing convicted for indecency

During investigations after a burglary at his house in 1952, Alan stated, in passing to police, that he was in a relationship with Arnold Murray. In the UK in 1952, homosexuality was considered a criminal offence. Both men were subsequently charged with gross indecency. On pleading guilty, Alan was presented with a cruel ultimatum: serve time in prison or consent to chemical castration. The chemical castration process involved injecting oestrogen into the body, (in a bid to alter a person's libido.) The treatment left Turing impotent, as well as causing significant growth in his breast tissue.

In the wake of his conviction, Turing was banned both from travelling to the United States and, from continuing his work with the government.

Alan Turing's death

On the 8th June 1954, Alan Turing was found dead in his home. His death was found to be caused by cyanide poisoning. It is believed that he took his own life.

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Posthumous pardon

In 2013, Alan Turing was granted a royal pardon. This apology, devastatingly late, was viewed by many as a mere token, (given the suffering Turing was put through in life.)

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