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Alan Turing - Celebrating the life of a genius

Turing as a BA graduand at King's, 1934

Turing (centre) 1934.
Image: the Provost and fellows of King's college, Cambridge

Saturday 23 June 2012 marks the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing - mathematical genius, hero of the WWII code breakers of Bletchley Park, and father of modern computing. To celebrate, a blue plaque will be unveiled on the front of King’s College in Cambridge - where Turing was both a student and then a fellow - along with various events and a short film produced by the University.

Alan Turing was a mathematician, cryptographer and pioneer of computer science who possessed one of the greatest brains of the 20th century. His life was one of secret triumphs shadowed by public tragedy.

Perhaps best known today for his part in breaking the German Enigma code during World War II, Turing was by that time already established as a mathematician of extraordinary capability.

During his time at King’s College, Cambridge, he conceived of the ‘Turing Machine’ - a universal machine which could imitate all possible calculating devices. This mathematical model went on to become one of the cornerstones of computer science, and is arguably the most influential mathematical abstraction of the 20th Century. Turing was 22 years old.

“Turing’s centenary year is a very special year for me, and other mathematicians like me,” said Dr James Grime from the University’s Millenium Maths Project, who regularly tours schools with an original ‘Enigma’ machine.

“In its purest form, mathematics is the search for truth, and Turing was one of the most important contributors to this search. It’s fantastic that his life is being celebrated.”

Grime has presented a short film produced by the University on the life and work of Turing (below). The film uses some of the photographs and documents that his family gave to King's College. The Turing family have continued to donate documents to the King's Archive Centre, and you can see many of these online at the Turing Digital Archive.

On the evening of Friday 22 June, Dr Andrew Hodges - a leading biographer of Alan Turing and Tutorial Fellow in Mathematics at Wadham College, Oxford - will be giving a free public lecture on Turing’s dramatic and all too brief life, looking at how he managed to relate computing to human nature. Entitled ‘100 years of Alan Turing, 1000000 years of the computer’, the lecture will take place at the University’s Babbage lecture theatre on the New Museums Site in central Cambridge - open to all and free to attend, with no need to book.

Find more alumni connections to the Turing Centenary, including the renowned biography by Dr Hodges, here.

At 3.30pm on the afternoon of the centenary day, Saturday 23 June, the Mayor of Cambridge - Councillor Sheila Stuart - will unveil a Blue Plaque to commemorate Alan Turing on the grass in front of King’s College. The event will be streamed live on the internet on the King’s College website here.  

A major centenary conference looking at Turing’s impact on mathematics, computing, philosophy and beyond is currently taking place in Cambridge - where the first issue of a new interdisciplinary journal called "Computability" has been presented. Inspired directly by Turing and his work, the journal aims to capture the spirit of Turing through the combination of theoretical insight and practical application that is the mark of Turing's work. More information on the conference here and on the journal here.

Born in London on 23 June 1912, Turing spent his childhood in Hastings in Kent and Sherbourne in Dorset. He displayed a precocious talent at school for maths and science, including condensing Einstein’s theory of relativity for his mum at the age of just 15.

Turing’s abilities led to him receive a scholarship to King’s College. He famously went on to make a vital contribution to the code-breakers at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Not only did he make the first breakthroughs with the Naval Enigma code, allowing Britain’s food and supplies to be shipped across the Atlantic, but, along with Gordon Welchman, he designed the machine - called the Bombe - which smashed the German Enigma code.

In 1945 Turing received an OBE for services to the Foreign Office, although the real reason for this honour remained top secret for another 30 years, long past Turing’s death. Many historians today believe that the work of the code-breakers shortened the war by two years.

In September 2009, the British government made a public apology to Alan Turing - who was gay at a time when it was illegal in Britain.  When authorities discovered the truth about his sexuality, he was sentenced to endure horrific hormone treatment to avoid imprisonment, labelled a security risk and forced from his job as a code breaker.

Turing committed suicide in 1954 by biting from an apple laced with cyanide, a desperately sad end to the life of a genius whose astonishing contribution to the war effort remained unknown until the 1970s.