This year marks the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth. Today he is celebrated for his role in cracking German military codes during the Second World War and his pioneering work on computing.
A new exhibition at the Manchester Museum brings together some of Turing’s original manuscripts in a celebration of his life and his work in the city.
At its heart is one forgotten aspect of Turing’s studies—the science of “morphogenesis”.
Scientists understood that plants and animals evolved into complex shapes, forms and patterns. But how exactly how did these patterns come about? This question fascinated Turing.
He believed that ultimately it had to come down to chemical interactions. Turing was able to show how chemical processes could produce patches of colour such as the mottling found on cows.
Turing was also the first to use computers to try and model biological behaviour. It took an hour to run his program on the Manchester Mark 1 computer, which was developed in 1949.
Turing’s work on morphogenesis came to a tragic end with his suicide in 1954. He had been arrested and charged with gross indecency two years previously. Homosexual acts were illegal in the 1950s, and he faced the choice of imprisonment or a “treatment” that amounted to chemical castration.
Today it is almost impossible to find an establishment figure who doesn’t admit that Turing was treated appallingly. Yet the refusal of David Cameron’s government to grant a posthumous pardon remains a slight on his memory.
Turing’s pathbreaking work brought together a vast range of subjects and drew links between them. His scientific vision encompassed mathematics, physics, chemistry, computing and biology.
But he suffered persecution and punshment on the basis of his sexuality. This barbarism cut short a career that would have led to further brilliant insights into the workings of the natural world.
Alan Turing and Life’s Enigma until 18 November, free admission, The Manchester Museum
Andrew Hodges’ biography Alan Turing: the Enigma is available from Bookmarks. Go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk
A new book by Paul O’Brien