Alan Turing: His Mind, His Life
In honor of the 100th anniversary of mathematician and logician Alan Turing's birth, the final installment of a two-part series explores the life of Turing as told by some of the most influential computer scientists in the world.
At the Association for Computing Machinery's 2012 Turing Award celebration, I discussed Turing, the father of computer science, with Frances Allen, Charles Bachman, Vint Cerf, Dame Wendy Hall, William Newman, Christos Papadimitriou and Judea Pearl.
Click the link below and/or watch the video above to hear their stories--and
please view Part 1 of “Alan Turing: His Mind, His Life” below.
WENDY HALL: I think he’s one of those people that lived to work. I mean that was his driving force, but of course he had, you know, a personal life and a sexual life outside of that.
CHRISTOS PAPADIMITRIOU: So Turing was homosexual and in England of the mid-19th, 20th Century. This was trouble, okay. It was explicitly a punishable offense.
VINT CERF: He was accused of practicing homosexuality, and that was considered a crime.
WH: He actually really told the police he was a homosexual. He, you know, and there’s a lot of conjecture that he really wanted to come out.
CP: Turing did his science as if he lived 50 years ahead of his time. Unfortunately he lived his personal life the same way.
CHARLES BACHMAN: When he was tried for the crime of homosexuality, he had the choice of going to prison in one sentence or to be chemically castrated, which sounds like a pretty horrible thing to happen.
CP: There was a burglary his home, and when the constable asked him, “Do you have any thoughts about who might have done it?” He said, “Yes, I suspect this person.” And he asked him, “Is he any relation of yours?” He said, “Yes, he was my lover.”
WILLIAM NEWMAN: Up until that point he was very happy, he was. He had moved to Manchester to work with my father in the mathematics department and this I think was probably his first real move away from King’s College in Cambridge where he really was at home.
CP: He had to submit to.. I’m sorry, I got emotional about that. He had to submit to hormone treatment, which had terrible transformative effects on his mind and body, and pushed him to suicide.
WH: When he was arrested and tried and found guilty, he chose--I mean this sounds appalling to us, it’s only the ‘50s--he chose chemical castration instead of going to jail.
CB: He did a lot of chemical experiments so having cyanide in the house was not unusual.
WH: That plays with your mind as well as your body, I imagine.
WN: My father was still working in Manchester and he telephoned my mother in Cambridge and I was sitting in the same room, and I could see some really terrible news was coming through.
JUDEA PEARL: Until you are in the shoes of the person, you don’t know. It could be a thousand things, a thousand things could have passed in his mind.
WH: There’s something about him liking the Snow White fairy story, fairy tale, and you know the poisoned apple that the queen eats in the fairy tale.
CP: He crafted his suicide in a way, I believe, that made it obvious to everybody that he killed, that he took his own life, except his mother who died believing that it was an accident.
WN: You know, this was a really tough time for my parents, and very distressing and sad for me. It was very confusing.
CP: I suspect that he did this deliberately and I believe this was his last brilliant construct.
WN: My name’s William Newman, and I was a friend of Alan Turing’s in the period after the war.
CP: My name is Christos Papadimitriou, and I’m a creation of Alan Turing.
JP: My name is Judea Pearl, and Alan Turing affected me indirectly by asking the questions that I was afraid to ask.
WH: My name is Dame Wendy Hall. I was one year old when Turing died but my career has been interestingly interwoven with his legacy.
JP: The question in my case was, how can we people manage to handle uncertainty so easily and so comfortably and machines can not?
VC: My name is Vint Cerf, and had Alan Turing not done what he did, I wouldn’t have programmed the first computer I put my hands on in 1960.
WH: I’m a computer scientist so clearly, you know, my career exists because of the work he did.
WN: He’s sort of like an uncle to me.
CP: Everything that I am--a scientist, a storyteller, a man who lives his life as consistently as possible--has been affected tremendously by Alan Turing.