Wednesday, September 2, 2009

That Strange Bicyclist, Alan Turing

One of the reasons we have computers and can make it do wonderful things for us is largely because of one man. Alan Turing.

Turing is the founder of the ideas behind the modern computer and artificial intelligence. The idea of controlling the computer's operations by means of a program of coded instructions stored in memory is central to any modern computer and this brilliant idea first occurred in Turing's mind.
At a fundamental level, he was one of the greatest mathematicians that ever set foot on the planet and arguably the greatest computer scientist Britain ever produced. And one of his most celebrated specialties was in the much sought-after skill of code breaking.
True genius as he was, during WWII, he single handedly solved the unbreakable German Enigma code (the Wehrmacht model shown right) at Bletchley Park, through a code breaking machine he designed known as the Bombe. Much astonishing an act it is to build something that can crack a machine which produces on the order of 15000000000000000000 (15 billion billion) combinations of secret code.

In one of the pages of the book The Essential Turing by Prof. Jack Copeland (a truly breathtaking work), there is a profound statement that just struck me. It is estimated that the breaking of Enigma, and in particular the breaking of Home Waters Naval Enigma, in which Turing played the crucial role, may have shortened the Allied war in Europe by some two years.

Take a look at the WWII Casualties page here and turn two years into human deaths to get a rough perspective of its significance (you could assume that the German High Command is not destroyed in those two years while doing that).

But as history has it, geniuses such as Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing etc had a problem. Their stories show us that you be so ahead of your times with your ideas and can use so much of mind, body and energy to focus on answering important questions that it can take away something from you that others would call normal human behavior. Simply put, there is a possibility that having the mind of a genius can turn you into persons with strange personalities and impractical attitudes. Beyond a point, these aspects may cause events that can fight with your own sanity and drive you insane, ultimately to your own death.

Turing's life came to a sad end partly in this manner. And in his life, he had a fair share of eccentric behaviors that made him open to persecution. Take a look below.

Turing was athletic (he almost made it to the British Olympic Team in the marathon) and had something for the bicycle from an early age. It is said that he acquired a hero status at the tender age of 13 when he pedaled 60 miles alone from Southampton to Sherborne Private Boarding School after discovering there were no trains running that day. It wasn't the act of riding such long miles that needs mention but instead, the special sort of determination to do so that you hardly would expect from a kid at 13.

While working at Bletchley Park, Alan would use the bicycle to commute to work as well as to get around Cambridge. The bike, however, was an old and defective machine. It also had an interesting problem. As you pedaled it, every so often, the chain would pop off and disengage from the chain ring. Every time this happened, he had to hop off the bike and put the chain back on. When he finally made it to his office, he had to wipe his hands with a rag dipped in Turpentine from a bottle he had placed there.

He loved his dying bike and would not give it up for something better. In fact, he enjoyed riding such a poorly functioning machine that no one else could. So how did he ride it? Well, legend (from reading an article by Ian Stewart in Nature) has it that he chose the most tortuous path to devising a solution for the problem.

The logician in him theorized that if he could find a pedaling interval "n" after which the chain would fall, he could then time it in his mind and execute a special maneuver with his legs to prevent the chain from disengaging. That took a lot of energy so he devised a counter and fixed it to his bicycle wheel and analyzed the mathematical relationship between the number of spokes in the wheel, the number of links in the chain and the number of cogs in the crankset.
What he found was that the mishap occurred for a unique configuration of wheel, chain and pedal. On looking at the machine more closely, he discovered that this problem only happened when a particular damaged link on the chain came into contact with a particular bent spoke. So he simply straightened the bent spoke.

By golly, a bike mechanic or anyone with a reasonable amount of experience with a bicycle could devise an efficient solution in less than 10 minutes. It took him months. This lengthy approach to solving problems proves to us that he was a true mathematician and not a mechanic.

That's not all. Turing had a bad case of hayfever allergy from an early age. He rationalized that to filter pollen away from irritating and exacerbating the allergy, he would strap a gas mask on his face while riding his bicycle in town, even in the rain. He was indifferent to what others thought about this practice. He did it.

Other odd behaviors were made obvious. His colleagues noted that instead of acts like chaining his bike, he had a strange habit of chaining his coffee mug to a radiator in his office as theft protection. Turing, it seemed, had different priorities.

Was this Turing's bicycle and gas mask? This still was obtained from a Channel 4 News segment.

Despite these and many other odd behaviors, he was very a very honest, open and friendly man. Perhaps only too friendly and vulnerable, as he ended up revealing to the security services about his practice of homosexuality. In the cold war, homosexuality was seen as a defense risk, not just something illegal and immoral. Shocked with the revelation, they arrested him and had him sexually neutralized through organotherapy. This involved chemical castration by injection of female estrogen that later induced many physical changes and mood issues in him.

Unable to cope with the tensions that played out in his head during his years in medical treatment, Alan Turing retired to his room one evening at the age of 41 and killed himself, taking a bite out of an apple he had laced with potassium cyanide.
The incredible irony of his story is that of a man who wrote brilliant theories about the human mind and machine intelligence, being treated no more than a machine, to be controlled and put into discipline by humans, humans who in fact acted like machines who saw the world only in binary, in black or white paradigm.
More than 50 years since his death, thousands upon thousands of people have signed petitions asking Britain to offer a formal, posthumous apology for the ill-treatment of Turing. A man who should have died a war hero in fact died in utter shame, they say.
Whether he should be pardoned or not has been one of the ongoing debates of our times.

Bletchley Park : Its No Secret, Just An Enigma (Telegraph)
Alan Turing : Code Breaker And AI Pioneer (1 Hour Video From MIT)
Alan Turing : Life And Legacy Of A Great Thinker
International Turing Apology Petition

* * *


Bike_Boy said...

I would love to know what happened to Turing's bicycle. Was it sold? Trashed? Auctioned? I searched Google but didn't find a thing.

John said...

Its very sad he had to die the way he did. The man was brilliant and there's no telling what else he could have achieved if he lived 20-30 years longer.

sillypuddy said...

Thank you sir. Very well written and educative. The irony is also in the fact that the people he had saved from the war ended up tormenting him, which was to blame to his demise. Basically they were responsible for destroying our national treasure. The Government should start recognizing what they did and own up to past mistakes if they're truly democratic by today's standards.

Bjorn said...

A really interesting post Ron. I didn't know about the sad end to the life of Alan Turing. One of my all time favourite books is Neal Stephenson's 1999 novel Cryptonomicon, published by Random House. The fictional book contains quite a degree of information about Alan Turing. I can't vouch for the accuracy of it, but it does relate the bicycle story and his involvement in Bletchley Park.