The mathematical enigma

Jun 2015
Happy birthday Alan Turing!

Alan Turing was born 23 June 1912, he would have been 105 this week. Today he is famous for being an eccentric mathematician who decoded the enigma machine, an achievement which played a vital part in writing the end of World War II and the subject of a recent film starring Benedict Cumberbatch called 'The Imitation Game'. We've had a little look into some of the milestones in his life.

Turing was always one step ahead, even whilst at school; he studied advanced scientific ideals such as relativity on his own, outside of his classes, when he left his peers behind.

He later won a scholarship to King's College, Cambridge and achieved a distinction in Mathematics. He was nominated for a fellowship there at just 22 years old!

In 1936, Turing wrote the first draft of a paper documenting his 'Turing machine' which defines the idea of computable numbers and the computing machine.

Before finalising the paper, he moved to Princeton University where he studied in the Department of Mathematics and also furthered his interest in cryptography.

His final, published paper is now believed to have set the foundations for computer science. In it he invented the idea of a 'Universal Machine' which could decode and perform any set of instructions.

Ten years later, he took this idea and turned it into a plan for an electronic computer.

After two years at Princeton, Turing returned to the UK and joined the government's code-breaking department at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire.

Their focus was the Enigma machine, used by the Nazi's to encipher all its military and naval signals. Following an initial code break by Poland in 1932, the machine had been set to change its algorithm once a day, giving 159 million million million possible settings to decipher.

In 1941, Turing's section at Bletchley mastered the German submarine communication system, arguably, this began a turn of events which led to the end of the war.

Turing also worked on other technical innovations whilst at Bletchley, including a system to encrypt and decrypt spoken telephone conversations. This gave Turing hands-on experience with electronics and led to a position at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL).

In 1946, Turing produced a detailed design for the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE). This was a digital device which stored programs in its memory; a computer. He left NPL before a pilot version of his design was created in 1950.

Moving to Manchester, his focus shifted to investigating the ability of a computer to rival human thought. In 1950, he published what has become perhaps his best known work, where he compared human and machine outputs in his idea of an 'imitation game', now known as the Turing Test.

So, this one mathematician's life saw him travel to study across the world, take on a secret mission for MI6, invent the computer and question human vs artificial life! Who says maths isn't exciting? Happy birthday Sir Turing!