The mathematician Alan Turing is the father of our digital worldby Ray Monk / March 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Creator and saviour? Turing spent the second world war at Bletchley Park, where he devoted himself to breaking the Enigma code
Digitized: The Science of Computers and How it Shapes Our World by Peter J Bentley, (Oxford University Press)
Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson (Allen Lane)
Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges (Centenary Edition, Vintage)
Alan M Turing by Sara Turing (Centenary Edition, Cambridge University Press)
A hundred years ago this June saw the birth of the man from whose brain sprang what is arguably the single most powerful idea of the 20th century, the idea that has done more than any other to influence our lives: the idea of the universal, digital computer.
The digital universe, writes George Dyson in Turing’s Cathedral, owes its beginnings to two prophets: the 17th-century German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, and the 20th-century mathematician and logician John von Neumann. “Alan Turing,” says Dyson, “arrived in between.” As Dyson’s own book makes clear, however, this account seriously understates Turing’s role in shaping the world in which we live.
Alan Mathison Turing was born in London on 23rd June 1912 into a well-off upper middle-class family. His mother, Sara, devotes the first chapter of her biography of him to a chronicle of his distinguished ancestors, which on his father’s side included, apart from various knights and baronets, his grandfather John Robert Turing, who was a mathematics don at Cambridge and Chaplain of Trinity College. On his mother’s side, he was descended from Irish Protestant landed gentry.
All this might lead one to picture Alan Turing as having the social confidence that came from being a member of the class that ruled the largest empire the world had ever seen. But he was throughout his life retiring and unassuming, cursed with a stammer that made social intercourse difficult. His academic brilliance, however, was manifest from an early age. Though regarded as rather a misfit at Sherborne boarding school, he won several school prizes and a scholarship to study mathematics at King’s College, Cambridge. At King’s, he was made a Fellow at the age of 22, an achievement the rarity of which was commemorated in a clerihew: