Setting The Record Straight For Alan Turing

tags: computers, Alan Turing, Turing machine

Adam Frank is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars.

Imagine, for a moment, that Albert Einstein's greatest contributions were kept secret at the highest levels of government. Imagine, for a moment, that while still relatively young, Einstein was prosecuted, shamed and driven to suicide for the inclinations of his affections. Imagine, for a moment, that in the wake of the secrecy, the shame and the suicide, you never knew Albert Einstein's name.

Seems crazy, doesn't it? In many ways, however, that narrative is the story of Alan Turing. Thankfully, it's a story that is finally getting aired in popular culture through the new film The Imitation Game.

Until relatively recently, most folks wouldn't come across Turing's name unless they had a certain kind of computational orientation. "Turing" doesn't ring the same bells as Einstein, Newton, Darwin or even Heisenberg, Watson and Crick. But, without doubt, Alan Turing should be on their list of science giants.

It's not just that Turing's work was worthy of a Nobel Prize. He went far beyond that. Turing possessed an epoch-making genius of the highest order — and his impact on human civilization is in line with the heights that kind of genius yields. That's why Turing's omission from everyone's list of super-scientists is so galling. But worse, still, are the circumstances of that omission's occurrence, driven by a confluence of two remarkable factors — an accident of history and pure narrow-minded fear.

The accident was World War II. To be more explicit, it was the fact that Turing played a decisive role in winning that war through his hyper-mega-top-secret work in cryptography. Turing's work deciphering German codes was kept utterly invisible to the rest of the world after the conflict ended. Thus, the man who helped shave two years off one of the bloodiest wars in history never became a household word (like "Oppenheimer" or "Patton" or "Eisenhower")....

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