Remembering Alan Turing

After the Great Fire of 1666, Sir Christopher Wren rebuilt St Paul’s Cathedral and much of London. Three centuries later St Paul’s still stands, still dominates the skyline, despite the needles and vegetables and distended pyramids that have grown up since.

The Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Palace of Westminster, Tower Bridge, the London Eye, the Gherkin, and now the Shard. Familiar shapes, instantly recognisable silhouettes. Over nine hundred years of architectural history.

In 1676 Sir Isaac Newton wrote to Robert Hooke: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. As in architecture, as in science. The tower of knowledge grows ever faster.

We are surrounded by computing power orders of magnitude greater than took man to the moon, which was itself orders of magnitude greater than helped break Enigma and Lorenz/Tunny.

In seventy years the computing skyline has leapt up: the buildings ever taller, ever shinier, and topped with ever louder bells and ever shriller whistles.

But the work of Alan Turing still dominates. A century after his birth, and almost sixty years after his death, his achievements are still discussed and lauded. Turing is the Wren, the Newton, of computing.

Wren lived to 90. Newton lived to 84.

Turing lived to 41.

He died, ultimately, at the hands of a state he helped preserve.

What might Turing have achieved had he lived as long as Wren, to 2002? How might the world be different today?

How might the world be different had he taken his life before the war?

There are petitions online urging the government to pardon Turing, and to put him on the tenner. Both worthy, both insufficient.

We should remember Alan Turing through education. To ensure that we can produce more like him, who can stand on his shoulders and make new breakthroughs in maths, in computing, and in other sciences. And to remind people that bigotry and inequality, whether by person or by church or by law, have no place in society.

In St Paul’s Cathedral, inscribed in a ring of black marble beneath the dome, are the words “LECTOR SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS CIRCUMSPICE”. An epitaph to Sir Christopher Wren — and quite apt for Turing too, I think.

Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.

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