Every seat in the Orchard room of the Franklin Environmental Center was taken, and people were standing against the walls to hear mathematics professor Michael Olinick present the Carol Rifelj Faculty Lecture about Alan Turing—the scientist who helped save the British by breaking Germany’s cyphered codes during World War II, created computer science, and who later died of cyanide poisoning.
Professor Olinick did not disappoint. His multimedia presentation included pictures of Turing as a child in a sailor suit, a song about Turing, and a scene from Breaking the Code, a play about Turing by Hugh Whitemore.
“At the age of 23” said Olinick, “Turing made the modern world possible.” And yet, until recently, he could have been “easily described as the most important person you’ve never heard of.”
Turing was born in London in 1912. He attended Sherborne School, where he was at the bottom of his class according to Olinick, preferring to study math on his own. He attended King’s College at Cambridge University as an undergraduate and received his PhD from Princeton. And during this time, he was laying the groundwork for computer science and artificial intelligence.
“He published relatively few papers in his lifetime,” Olinick said, “but almost all of them are considered landmarks in their field.” At a very young age, he conceived of his Turing Machine, which could do possibly any mathematical computation. It used an infinitely long tape divided into squares that would be left blank or encoded with a one or a zero as the machine worked on a problem. Turing demonstrated that “anything computable could be computed by such a machine.” He also developed the Turing Test, which measured machine intelligence, including the ability to learn.
Olinick’s presentation included two artifacts from the WWII era—Enigma machines. These machines, which look like typewriters with an extra keyboard, were used to encipher messages. Tom Perera, an expert on “everything enigma” brought them for audience members to try out at the conclusion of the talk.
The Enigma machines used a series of rotors that could be interchanged and rearranged and were connected to a “plug board.” They could be configured in so many combinations that, for all practical purposes, they were nearly limitless. When a letter was typed, it cycled through the rotors and emerged as a different letter altogether. To give the audience a sense of how complex deciphering the code was, Olinick tried to explain in terms people could grasp.
“Suppose you had a high-speed computer that could process 100 million configurations per second,” he said. “Imagine that we had a computer this fast that started running the day the universe was created and was running continuously ever since, examining different configurations of this machine, trying to find all of them—and among all of them, finding the correct ones. This machine, which has been running since the dawn of creation, would be 1/800,000 of the way through.” Yet, Turing broke the code.
But for all of his success, “Turing’s life took on the dimensions of a Shakespearian tragedy,” Olinick said. He was an openly gay man during a paranoid, unaccepting time. When he was young, his closest, dearest friend, probably his lover, died tragically just as they were about to go to Cambridge together. In 1952, he reported a burglary, and during the investigation the police discovered that Turing had a homosexual relationship, which he admitted. He was arrested, lost his security clearance, convicted, and subjected to chemical castration (estrogen injections).
Olinick said that the estrogen had a terrible effect on Turing, feminizing him and destroying his sexuality. He died in 1954 of cyanide poisoning. According to Olinick, it’s widely believed to have been suicide, but Turing did not leave a note and had been making future plans; he’d even just purchased new socks. Some speculate that his death could have been a political assassination. And his mother believed it was an accident, because he worked with cyanide.
As appreciation for Turing’s contributions and tribulations has grown in recent years, a “plethora of novels and short stories, five dramatic plays, three operas, a musical now on the London stage, and a monopoly set” have been devoted to Turing. The play Lovesong of the Electric Bear by Snoo Wilson, directed by Cheryl Faraone, debuted at Middlebury College in 2010. It was later performed by the Potomac Theater Project.
In the wake of public demands for restitution for Alan Turing, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology in 2009. Printed on a handout at the lecture, it read in part, “Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. . . . This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality, and long overdue.”