TURING, ALAN MATHISON. 1912-1954. Composition notebook.

Turing point

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 42, Spring 2015

Page 17

Turing point

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 42, Spring 2015

Page 17

Turing point

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 42, Spring 2015

Page 17

Turing point

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 42, Spring 2015

Page 17

The codebreaker was a man of few words. But now a hidden manuscript lends a new insight into his genius, says Cassandra Hatton; Andrew Hodges describes Turing's triumph and his tragedy

Alan Turing is a legend and a mathematical genius. At the age of 24, he invented the universal computing machine, now known as a Turing Machine, forever changing the course of history; all modern computers are, in fact, iterations of a Turing machine. But Turing was much more than just the father of computing. He was a war hero, having led the charge in breaking the Nazi Enigma code during the Second World War, shortening the conflict by what many estimate to be two years, and saving countless lives. He was also a tragic figure, whose life ended all too soon because of intolerance and persecution, and this loss to science – indeed to humanity – is incalculable. One would be hard-pressed to name a person who has had a more direct impact on our lives than Turing: the computer I am using to write this piece would not have existed without him.

This is why when I first saw the Turing manuscript, my heart raced and I felt a little light-headed. Alan Turing was parsimonious with words, and even in the archive at King's College, Cambridge, which houses all his mathematical books and papers, there is nothing like this. The codebreaking genius was not thought to have kept any journals or extensive notes – the majority of his work in the archive consists of typescripts.

When I found out that his 56-page manuscript, written in a simple notebook, had never been seen or studied, and had in fact been kept hidden for decades, I realized that it ranks among some of the most important scientific and historical discoveries of our time, a Da Vinci Codex for the modern era.

Sandwiched between Turing's notes in the manuscript is a diary kept by his close friend, the mathematician, Robin Gandy, who inherited Turing's papers on his death in 1954. Gandy deposited them in the archive at King's in 1977 but wanted to keep his diary secret, so Turing's manuscript was hidden among his personal effects until his death.

Written between 1940 and 1942, a crucial period when Turing was at Bletchley Park, the manuscript gives remarkable insight into how his mind worked, and how he tackled problems. Treating as it does the foundations of mathematics and computer science, the manuscript begs to be studied by scholars.

Turing's famous paper On Computable Numbers with an Application to the Entscheindungs problem, in which he introduces his universal computing machine, is a must-have for any collector of computer history, mathematics or the history of ideas. But this manuscript is surely the only chance to acquire anything in the hand of Turing, whose impact on our lives is enormous.

Cassandra Hatton is Director of the History of Science & Technology department at Bonhams and a Senior Specialist in Fine Books & Manuscripts.

Andrew Hodges describes how Turing was anything but calculating when it came to his personal life

Alan Turing was ahead of his time. As the leading scientific figure in British Second World War codebreaking, he made a crucial contribution to cracking the Enigma ciphers. It was as though he had borrowed from the future to defeat Nazi Germany, powering an industrial-scale development parallel to the atomic bomb. Turing also hit on the idea of the digital computer, starting out from an abstruse problem in mathematical logic, and then did his best to bring about the IT revolution with his own hands. And he was a gay man at a time when homosexuality was outlawed.

As a brilliant young student of mathematics at Cambridge in the 1930s, Turing developed his theory of 'computable numbers' and with it the theory of computers. He did this as a young outsider. His interest in ciphers also began as an individual sideline, until the looming conflict induced him to join the war effort in 1938 and he became the first British scientific figure to work on the Enigma ciphers. The first British 'bombe' codebreaking machine, installed at Bletchley Park in 1940, was based on Turing's logical brainwave, although he was helped at first by Polish mathematicians.

However, Turing was on his own in tackling the most difficult Enigma ciphers, as used by the U-boats; his determination to crack them ran against a prevailing defeatism. He succeeded, and led the other mathematicians of 'Hut 8' with a new statistical theory. At the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, he was sent by ship to New York as the top technical liaison with American cryptographers.

The Second World War came as an interruption to his theoretical and purely mathematical projects, but in a deeper sense it fulfilled his work by providing the electronic engineering to turn his computer theory into a practical design. Alan Turing emerged in 1945 as the one person who saw the future of computation. To implement his design, Turing went to the National Physical Laboratory, London, and then switched to Manchester University in 1948. It was there that he formulated the Turing Test, now famous as a materialist exposition of how human intelligence would be rivaled by computers. Less famous were his discoveries in mathematical biology, but these were also decades ahead of their time.

To have done this by the age of 40 was an amazing achievement. But time did not favor Alan Turing. He was at the heart of 20th-century warfare, but refused to give up free intellectual life. The manuscript to be sold at Bonhams in New York shines extra light on how, even during a world crisis, he remained committed to open-ended thinking in pure mathematics.

He was out of place, out of time: an informal, not to say scruffy, young man who enjoyed rowing, sailing and running, comfortable in shorts but not in ties. (Although he took running seriously and was almost an Olympic marathon contender). 'Phoney' was his favorite term of abuse, along with 'salesman, charlatan and politician'. But this demand for honesty was compromised: he lived in a very hostile world.

His base at King's College, Cambridge was one place, however, where his sexuality could be talked about – and more. But he did not fit into its aesthetic Bloomsbury ambience; he had a hinterland of his own. The war removed him from this elite environment, as well giving him the chance of a marriage of convenience with his colleague Joan Clarke. He declined it. "For each man kills the thing he loves," he told her. After 1948 he had a boyfriend called Neville, a Geordie mathematics student. But this long-distance relationship was hard to maintain, and on the Oxford Road, Manchester, Turing made a fateful "pick-up", as he described it to the police, of a 19-year old Manchester lad. He was arrested on the day George VI died, but even in the Manchester computer laboratory, unfazed by its laddish ambience, he joked about the impending trial. He told the police that he thought – wrongly – that there was a Royal Commission sitting to legalize homosexual acts. Premature by decades, as usual, he suffered for it.

"Turing believes machines think/ Turing lies with men/ Therefore machines do not think," he wrote to a gay friend. He was playing on words, and on his parallel status as a heretic. The Turing Test was, in fact, a sort of Turing Trial, anticipating the real courtroom. His unapologetic statement obliged a 'guilty' plea, and as an alternative to prison he accepted treatment with 'organotherapy'. This was the injection of female hormones in a supposedly scientific attempt to erase his interest in sex.

It did not work. In the summer of 1952 he fled to Norway, and the following spring, a young man from Bergen turned up in Newcastle hoping to visit, but was intercepted by police surveillance – the "poor sweeties", as Turing called them. In July 1953, he escaped to Europe again, arriving back with a list of contacts made in Greece.

Alan Turing was defiant in continuing his exploratory gay life, and his new ideas in scientific work, and he did so with friendship and humor. There can be no easy assumption that his death in 1954 was self-inflicted. But he had spoken of a suicide plan, and the scenario, involving potassium cyanide and a symbolic apple, was almost certainly calculated to be readable as a chemical accident.

Given how extreme his situation was, another crisis was hardly unlikely. Vetting had changed since 1948, when 'perversion' became a totem of American paranoia – and Alan Turing was the walking embodiment of security fears. Even if he had argued that he had stood up to blackmail, he could hardly deny that he mixed in utterly unpredictable social milieux. These moral issues are, thanks to the breadth of Turing's work, connected with scientific ones. He placed the phenomena of initiative and originality, the appearances of will and choice – which seem so unlike anything done by computers – at the heart of the question of 'intelligence'. It is a paradox that his own life was the least computer-like that could be imagined, and possessed an integrity that had nothing to do with cleverness.

Andrew Hodges is author of Alan Turing: The Enigma.

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