Oh please!

The latest move in the canonisation of Alan Turing is an opera, or whatever, written by the Pet Shop Boys, which is being heavily promoted by a PR campaign launched yesterday. As part of this press onslaught this magazine cover appeared on my Twitter stream today.

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For the record, as a fan and one time student of meta-mathematics I was aware of and to some extent in awe of Alan Turing long before most of the people now trying to elevate him into Olympus even knew he existed. He was without a shadow of a doubt one of the most brilliant logicians of the twentieth-century and he along with others of his ilk, such as Leopold Löwenheim, Thoralf Skolem, Emil Post, Kurt Gödel, Alonzo Church etc. etc., who laid the theoretical foundations for much of the computer age, all deserve to be much better known than they are, however the attempts to adulate Turing’s memory have become grotesque. The Gay Man Who Saved the World is hyperbolic, hagiographic bullshit!

Turing made significant contributions to the work of Bletchley Park in breaking various German codes during the Second World War. He was one of nine thousand people who worked there. He did not work in isolation; he led a team that cracked one version of the Enigma Code. To what extent the work of Bletchley Park contributed to the eventual Allied victory is probably almost impossible to assess or quantify.

Alan Turing made significant contributions to the theories of meta-mathematics and an equally significant contribution to the British war effort. He did not, as is frequently claimed by the claqueur, invent the computer and he most certainly did not “save the world”. Can we please return to sanity in our assessment of our scientific heroes?

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19 Comments

Filed under History of Computing, History of Mathematics, Myths of Science

19 responses to “Oh please!

  1. Can we please return to sanity in our assessment of our scientific heroes?

    As a historian, surely you are aware that this “return” is longing for the good old days that never were.

  2. M Tucker

    Alan Turning has been elevated to hero martyr status because of his personal history and not necessarily because of accomplishments. Those who want to claim him as a hero martyr are folks who are mostly involved with popular culture and do not really pay attention to, or really know anything about, history in general. The best they can do with his professional accomplishments is to connect him with computers. It is no surprise to me that they would claim he invented the computer. For them Turning’s significance is the persecution and physical punishment he endured and his suicide. For them, the rest of his bio comes under the general heading of “too much information.” I can only hope that the article in that magazine might enlighten them on his accomplishments.

  3. There’s a book by David Brewster titled The Martyrs of Science, or, The lives of Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler. Published 1880.

    The desire for heroes and martyrs has been with us for a very long time.

  4. Galileo of course is the canonical example of a scientific martyr (with Bruno and Hypatia close seconds), but I wonder why Brewster included Tycho. A martyr to bladder-control, perhaps, but science?

    One of these days I’ll have to read the book and find out.

    • Probably because Christian IV cut off his funding causing him to leave Denmark in a huff.

    • laura

      That’s right. And Kepler because he didn’t always get paid (and also because he was excommunicated by the Catholic Church (!), which seems a strange mistake to make but also one I’ve seen repeated elsewhere). The book is actually more sensible than you might think though and sort of interesting in how it reflects Romantic values. It’s amusing how Brewster is very, very concerned about Tycho’s alchemy and astrology.

      • Kepler was barred from communion by his local pastor in the Lutheran Protestant Church! Does Brewster say anything about Kepler’s astrology or does he belong to those who try and deny that Kepler was an astrologer?

      • laura

        I’m working from memory, but I don’t think Brewster denies that Kepler was an astrologer. He gives the “a little better than begging” quote about the calendars but also explains Kepler’s theory of the aspects and the world soul. He may imply though that Kepler’s astrology was almost completely natural rather than judicial. At any rate I’ve seen a lot worse ;)

  5. Ian H Spedding

    You think it’s bad now? Just wait ’til Hollywood gets their hands on the story. We’ll see mild-mannered mathematician Alan Turing (Brad Pitt) entering a shed at Bletchley Park (California) and emerging seconds later as “CryptoMan!” able to decrypt huge chunks of German military radio traffic in a single leap of logic. That’s before he’s sent behind enemy lines with a small (but macho) team of crypto-commandos to defeat the combined forces of the Gestapo and SS in bloodthirsty close-quarters combat. Directed by Quentin Tarantino with his usual fine eye for historical detail.

    • There have already been two films on the story of the Enigma code. The first U-571 gave the credit for capturing an Enigma machine to the Americans who were in reality never involved in the story. The second Enigma made the fictional Turing figure a heterosexual. Bletchley Park has not been served well by the film industry to date.

      • guthrie

        I think it’s probably too complex a story to tell well in a film anyway. And there seem to be some disagreements about exactly what/ who/ when, see for instance J. V. Jones “Most secret War”, in which he disagrees with some of the things Winterbotham wrote.

      • There is, of course, the play and film Breaking the Code which, as far as I know, portray Turing realistically. Good pun in the title as well.

        Does Apple’s logo reflect Turing’s suicide?

  6. Alan Turing didn’t invent the computer. He’s the founder of Computer Science–the science of what is computable. He defined “algorithm”; that definition is called a Turing Machine. He also wrote foundational papers about AI, for which there’s still no agreed definition but the best known contender is the Turing Test. And he’s being played by Cumberbatch. http://www.nme.com/filmandtv/news/first-look-at-benedict-cumberbatch-as-alan-turing-revealed/328619

    • I did say in my post that Turing should be recognised for his work in meta-mathematics but being the pedant that I am I’m going to slightly criticise your comment.

      Turing was not ‘the founder’, he was one of a group of meta-mathematicians who made substantial contributions to the foundations of the science of what is computable in the first half of the twentieth-century. They of course building on the work of many mathematicians and logicians in the preceding centuries.

      A Turing Machine is indeed one possible definition of algorithm as it is used in the modern sense, it is by no means the only one. It still remains to be shown conclusively that all the possible definitions are formally equivalent. An interesting task for a budding logician ;))

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