Thursday, 26 April 2012

Put Turing on the Tenners!

I don't know whether you are geeky enough to know this, but this year is Alan Turing Year. If you are an IT geek, or in the UK, you probably know exactly who Alan Turing was. If you don't fall into those categories, you probably just said 'who?'

Alan Turing was born on 23rd June 1912. During World War 2, he worked at Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking headquarters, where he was largely responsible for the construction of a mathematical code-breaking machine, 'the bombe', based on valves. In short, more or less the first working computer. Turing's machines broke the 'unbreakable' German 'Enigma' naval communications code, thus giving the allies a massive advantage, especially since the Germans were convinced their codes were indecipherable by humans. In which, incidentally, they were right.

Unfortunately for Turing, he was also highly eccentric, not to mention, gay as a tangerine. In 1952, at the height of cold war paranoia about security risks, he was prosecuted for the crime of homosexuality, and his security clearances were removed. He agreed to take a form of 'chemical castration', and later committed suicide on 7th June 1954. Since the work of Bletchley Park remained a state secret for decades, his work there was not widely known about until much more recently.

So, to sum it up, in return for helping the British win the war, and inventing the first computer, he was basically persecuted to death.

Anyway, you may know all this. What you may not know is that there is now a campaign to put Alan Turing on a British ten pound note. If you would like to support it, you can sign the petition here.

I think it would be great to put Alan Turing on a ten pound note. Not as some sort of politically correct reward for being a gay genius, or as some kind of recompense for being treated like crap. I think it would be great for more complicated cultural reasons, to do with what kind of person is considered to have contributed to the nation.

If you believe the narrative of the governing classes in the UK over the last decades, the kind of people who really matter to the nation are Successes (with a capital S). They wear suits. They command million pound salaries. They cut and thrust and risk their capital. Failing that, they are incessantly on TV. They are buff and bust and they are endlessly, irritatingly in your face in one way or another, either on a screen or more worryingly, sitting down to tea with the Prime Minister and explaining to him that you should pay their over-inflated salary because they are so very, very important.

The thing about these kind of people is that they would never ever have enough personality to invent something which would change the course of history. They simply don't have the imagination.

And that's why I'd like to have Alan Turing on the ten pound notes. Because people who actually do groundbreaking stuff are often a bit weird. They are not usually being feted in the city, and being given knighthoods. Those are just people who got born lucky, or who had rich friends, or a lack of inspiration so overwhelming all they could think of was money. On the other hand, people who actually do things which are so far ahead that the effects are still being reeled in 70 years later, tend more to be the kind of person you might be wary of sitting next to in the canteen, and who might, in some circumstances, be seen as a little bit awkward or embarrassing.

(Incidentally, like Charles Darwin, current incumbent on the notes. Caused a storm by questioning religion, never held a university position, prone to throwing up at awkward moments.)

Also, the individuals on our bank notes are supposed to represent the nation. Frankly, few things are more traditionally English than being eccentric bonkers, a genius, and totally queer. So bid goodbye to puking Charlie, and put Turing on the tenners! Sign the petition. And while you're at it, say sod off to the overpaid oiks swarming over the steaming carcass of the British nation, and remind yourself that we were once able to invent things.
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Updated:

The petition to pardon Turing is now at no 10 on the list of petitions to the government. The petition to get him on the tenners is at 20. C'mon people, keep signing!

4 comments:

  1. Well said!

    However, would it be far too nerdy of me to point out that the bombes were electromechanical and didn't use valves? :)

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    1. My bad! As a wordy person I'm really interested in the code-breaking aspect but I'm not very technical! Thanks for correcting the error.

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  2. I totally agree with this and would love to see my hero Turing take over from my hero Darwin on the next issue of tenners. Also don't forget the e-petition to have Turing pardoned http://goo.gl/DTWjF

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  3. Love that you are championing Turing. Also worth mentioning (geek alert), that he revolutionised mathematics in the '30s: along with Alonso Church he took Godel's famous "Incompleteness" Theorem and applied it to the stopping problem in algorithms. In order to do this he invented the idea of the mechanical computer (the Turing Machine) and then generalised it to the programmable modern computer (the Universal Turing Machine).

    As if that wasn't enough he then considered the possibility that the human mind functioned like a computer and decided to invent the "Imitation Game" (now popularly called "The Turing Test") as a way of telling whether or not a machine was sentient.

    Not content with that, post-war he figured out the likely chemical mechanism by which animals get stripes and spots.

    One of the greats. Fully deserving of a stint on the 10 pound note. (Yes, I've already signed that petition and the one for his pardon.)

    Typed on phone so apologies for typos/damnyouautocortects.

    Many thanks for this blogpost.

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