December 28, 2013



Google Doodle to mark birth centenary of Alan Turing

A genius mathematician who laid the foundation of computer science by formalizing the concepts of 'algorithm' and 'computation', Alan Turing is widely regarded as one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century having contributed to diverse subjects including maths, computers, logic, cryptology and artificial intelligence. The hypothetical computation device that he invented in 1936 - the Turing machine which was a major break through and is the basis of the modern computers. While working for the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) during the Second World War, he was instrumental in deciphering several complex German ciphers, thereby giving the Allies vital information and helping them in defeating the Nazis while saving thousands of innocent lives. However, after he pleaded guilty for being involved in a sexual relationship with another man in 1952, he agreed to undergo chemical castration instead of imprisonment which would prevent him from carrying out his scientific research. Two years later, he was found dead; unable to bear the public humiliation following his trail, he took his own life after eating an apple dipped in cyanide. For a man who had achieved so much success in such little time, I wonder how much more contribution he would have made to various disciplines of science had he lived longer. His untimely death at the age of 42 was an immeasurable loss to science. Considering his contribution during the war, it is a shame that he was not given the respect and the honor that he so rightly deserved, especially in his final years. 

In the decades following the tragedy, the English society underwent drastic changes; homosexuality which was a taboo in the 1950s was now being accepted more openly. At the same time there was a sense of realization that the treatment meted out to Turing - one of the greatest son's of modern day Britain by the officials back then and his subsequent death were a blot on the nation's history. In 1967, England legalized homosexuality when PM Harold Wilson passed the 'Sexual Offences Act'. In 2009, British programmer and author John Graham-Cumming started a petition urging the government to issue an apology to the great mathematician for the manner in which he was treated. After thousands of people signed it, British PM Gordon Brown issued a statement in August 2009 expressing regret over the entire episode on behalf of the government while hailing the contribution he made during the war. In July 2012, a bill was introduced in the House of Lords asking the for statutory pardon to Turing for his conviction under the draconian Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885) after an online petition in this regard by William Jones was signed by 37,000 people. Eminent people like Stephan Hawkings and Sir Paul Nurse expressed their support for this cause. Finally on the eve of Christmas in 2013, the Queen granted royal pardon to Alan Turing, bringing closure to a rather dark chapter from the past and was a recognition of his efforts that helped beat the Nazis, besides his research work, most notably the computational model which forms the basis of modern computer science.

I first came across Turing's work in the third year of my engineering in Computer Technology in the Fifth semester (2009). Ever since my professor Mr Gajanan Gawade taught us the Turing machine as a part of the curriculum in the subject - Automata, Language and Computation (ALC), I have been highly impressed with this man. Of course, I must admit that I was never good at the subject, especially drawing the automata (Turing machines) for a given grammar. Having read his biography on Wikipedia, I was deeply saddened by the tragedy that happened to such a genius later in his life. In the final year of my BE, we were though about the Turing test which measures a machine's intelligence - a milestone in Artificial Intelligence and some of his work in cryptography. The apology by the British government in late 2011 and more particularly, the royal pardon a week back, rekindled my interest in Alan Turing. Being a student of computer science myself, I think by its actions, Britain has tried to correct a mistake that it had committed six decades ago, a mistake that took the life of a man who could achieved so much more had he been allowed to live longer, a man who was convicted for prejudice by a narrow minded society that he had strove to protect against the Axis powers. I am writing this post expressing some of my views on this topic.

Mr Brown, thank you for the apology: While his contribution to mathematics and computer science is immense, Alan Turing's role as code-breaker working tirelessly for the British government during World War II is perhaps the greatest work of his life. The Turing-Welchman bombe that he developed with the help of mathematician Gordon Welchman helped in decoding messages that had been encrypted by the German navy using their famed machine - the Enigma. In 1942, he devised a new technique - Turingery to decode the Lorenz cipher. Later another code-breaker Tommy Flowers built the Colossus computer which helped in breaking the cipher. Turing was consulted by the Bell laboratories during the development of the secure voice communication system - SIGSALY which was used in the later phases of the war. It is believed that if it was not for code-breakers like him working at Bletchley Park, the war would extended for at least two more years. Considering this, the apology that the then British PM Gordon Brown issued in 2009 was indeed a positive step. Nations, like men make mistakes. It is a an entirely different thing that Britain had repeatedly made mistakes in the past and it seems that it has never learnt from them. Anyway, there is nothing greater than accepting one's mistake. By saying sorry, the British government has tried to honor a war hero who as Brown himself put 'deserved so much better'.

The hype over the Royal Pardon: The royal pardon granted to Alan Turing has raised some eyebrows. This is because pardon is generally granted to those people who have been convicted wrongly and whose family members have asked for it. Considering this criteria, some section of people have expressed their dissatisfaction over the move. While they accept that Turing was a great war hero, they argue that he was tried by the law of the land as it existed back then and hence, does not deserve a pardon. However, one also has to understand that the law that he was tried under was 'draconian' to say the least. Being gay is not an offence. While he may have been a criminal in the eyes of the law, Turing did nothing wrong. In fact, such was his love for research, that he accepted to undergo chemical castration as imprisonment would hamper his work. Following his conviction, Alan was barred from working for British intelligence and was not allowed to travel to the US. The female hormones injected into his body to 'suppress' homosexual tendencies caused gynaecomastia; his athlete like body became bulky. For a shy person like Alan, the humiliation that he was subjected to in the last 2 years of his life was too much to bear and drove him to suicide. Taking into account the wrong that was done to him, he deserves a pardon. In fact, he deserves much more. I wish the British government bestows knighthood on Alan Turing sometime soon. 

The Turing Pardon - A victory for the entire LGBT community: Britain is one of the few countries in the world where homosexuality and marriage between individuals belonging to the same sex is permitted by law today. However in the Victorian era, there was prejudice against the LGBT community in the British Isles. Especially in the post war English society, being gay was a big taboo. The Soviets were using homosexuality as an entrapment to recruit spies. Several high profile personalities like Guy Burges and Donald Maclean were lured into acting as KGB double agents in this manner. Although Turing was never accused of spying, these events adversely affected the trail, at least in the eyes of the public. The apology and the pardon is not only a clean chit to the great scientist but for all those people who like him were booked under the law for their sexual orientation. In a country which went to war to protect the democratic rights of people in Europe, it is a shame that it once prosecuted its own citizens for being gay. However, as mentioned earlier, the steps taken by the government in the last two years has helped wipe off this blot to some extent. The royal pardon is not for Alan Turing alone, it is for all those countless innocent men who were prosecuted for their sexual preferences. Like in the UK, I hope that India - the world's largest democracy too legalizes homosexuality and allows its people to live their lives the way they want.

Turing hogged all lime-light at Bletchley Park: It has been suggested that Alan Turing took away all credit from other great code-breakers at Blecthley Park. There is a general conception that breaking Enigma was much simpler than breaking the more complex Lorenz cipher. Based on this fact many believe that all those who worked on the construction of the Colossus - the semi programmable computer that the British used to decrypt secret Lorenz messages during the war, deserve more credit than Turing. These include Max Newman who was Turing's mentor, Tommy Flowers who designed the machine and mathematician Bill Tutte who discovered the logic behind the working of the encryption system. The key intelligence inputs that Colossus provided, especially during the all important D-Day landing in Normandy they say helped shorten war by a few years. Some also say that Flowers is the true father of modern computers as he was the one to invent Colossus. This in some ways reminds me of the classic  Edison-Tesla conflict but on a closer look, one will realize that this is drastically different. While there are some reasons to believe that Edison tried to portray Tesla's AC in bad light to promote his invention - the DC, Turing never did any such thing. There is no record at least as of now to suggest that Turing claimed any credit for the success of Colossus even though some people wrongly credit him for it. There is no doubt that Enigma was much simpler to crack than Lorenz and Turing being a master mathematician and code-breaker himself, knew it. Turing always led a low profile life and it is perhaps his tragic death that made us realize the role that he played in the success of the team at the Park. As far as recognition for Tutte and Flowers goes, it is up to the British government to make sure that its war heroes, even those who contributed to her victory off the field get their due. The greatest tribute to the code-breakers at Bletchley Park will be the release of documents which have been classified for over six decades, to the general public. I am pretty sure that after going through these the British people will realize how much contribution the code-breakers made during the war.

For a quiz on Alan Turing, click here (Link)


(1) Wikipedia - Alan Turing (Link)


(1) Google Doodle to mark birth centenary of Alan Turing
Original: IBN Live - Alan Turing Google doodle is the toughest yet (Link)