The Life of Alan Turing

The other night I watched Codebreaker, a documentary based on the life of mathematician, Alan Turing, widely considered to be the the father of computer science. I didn’t know anything about his life. In fact, I didn’t really know much about his work either, other than references to the Turing test for AI.

Turns out his life was really fascinating and tragic. This documentary is available on streaming through Netflix and I encourage you to watch it if you haven’t already seen it.

During WWII, Turing worked with a group of like-minded folks at Bletchley Park to crack German ciphers, specifically the aptly named Enigma Machine. His work was pivotal in the war, and he should have been treated like a hero. Instead, his British government persecuted him for his homosexuality (which was then illegal) and forced him to make a decision: go to prison or allow himself to undergo “treatments” for “chemical castration”. He chose the chemical castration because they told him it was reversible.

He underwent “treatments” for a year to decrease his libido. He had trouble concentrating, and he probably experienced other negative side effects, such as gynecomastia. His suicide was poetic—he ate an apple poisoned with cyanide, leaving behind no letter. The apple said it all.

It’s sickening to think of what such a man could have accomplished had he lived. The documentary painted a portrait of a sensitive and highly self-aware man, sometimes difficult but mostly charming and charismatic.

I watched this trailer to The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing:

Turing seems here to be characterized as the stereotypical autism-spectrum idiot savant, not unlike Sherlock. I know allowances are supposed to be made for movies, but I wonder if even just for the sake of character Turing’s portrayal could have been more nuanced. Of course, I’m jumping the gun here. I haven’t seen the movie yet. (Just like me to criticize a movie before seeing it!) In truth, I can’t wait to see it. Especially since I love Benedict Cumberbatch, even if this does prove to be Sherlock II.

Have you or are you planning on seeing The Imitation Game?

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17 thoughts on “The Life of Alan Turing

  1. Definitely (and I need to see Codebreaker, too)! I got into computer programming back in the late 1970s and took to it like the proverbial duck to water. It ended up being my career (as well as a major hobby). I think of the discovery of computer programming as my “third re-birth”.
    http://logosconcarne.com/2012/09/10/my-life-3-0/

    As such, Turing is one of my heroes! (Along with Lady Ada Lovelace and Admiral Grace Hopper, especially the latter to whom we own the term “computer bug”… the first recorded computer bug was literally a moth caught in some relay contacts.)

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    • You should definitely see “Codebreaker”. I only wish they had explained things a little bit more in depth. I don’t know anything about computers (I can barely manage to use one) and this would have been fascinating to me.

      So funny about the bug! I just thought it was a metaphor taken from illness or from bugs being generally annoying.

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  2. Fascinating! I was somewhat aware of some amazing codebreaking that altered the course of the war, but your article provided lots of interesting historical background, not to mention the heart-wrenching personal issues that are always enmeshed in historical events.Can’t “Like” the topic, but your article is certainly enlightening!

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  3. I definitely plan to see ‘The Imitation Game’ when it becomes available for streaming. Somehow, I’ve managed to completely miss the existence of ‘Codebreaker’ until now, but I see that it’s on Netflix, so it’s definitely on my soon to watch list.

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    • I think you’ll enjoy it. And you’ll know a lot more than I about the computer side of things, so you won’t be as irritated I was when they left out the details. That’s my one gripe with the documentary (plus the repetition at the beginning…I think you’ll notice). Other than that, it seemed like a realistic account of the man. I’ll be curious to hear what you think of it and “The Imitation Game”.

      I hope the shoulder’s progressing?

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  4. Pingback: The Imitation Game | Diotima's Ladder

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