Breaking the Code

Last month I went to see the Oxford Theatre Guild’s production of Hugh Whitmore’s play, Breaking the Code, at the Old Fire Station in Oxford. The play presents the life of Alan Turing from childhood to the end of his life, and is based on the excellent book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. I thoroughly enjoyed the production; the direction and staging allowed the audience to focus fully on the actors, especially Joseph Kenneway who gave impressive performance as Turing himself.

Turing is an interesting character in the history of science in that his personal traits and social situation are remembered more than his technical achievements. He’s a rare character that is known better for how he lived and died than for some theory or invention. I think there are several factors that lead to this, not least of which is the recent publicity surrounding the way he was treated as a result of his homosexuality. Furthermore the work he did was either very difficult to comprehend or difficult to understand outside of the context of the War years. I’m sure he was an outstanding codebreaker – but exactly what made him better than his fellow code breakers at Bletchley Park I can’t tell you. Beyond his work at Bletchley, Turing was very influential in early computing at the University of Manchester. The idea of the Universal Turing Machine is quite well known, yet few people outside of the history of computing have heard of the Pilot ACE, a very early computer built in the UK.

2012 marks 100 years since Alan Turing was born, and there will be lots of activities and events to commemorate his life. I hope that some of those events find room to look beyond the tragedies of the man himself and commemorate his achievements as a mathematician.

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