Alan Turing, the genius of Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park is located between Oxford and Cambridge and there is a reason for that. During the Second World War, this place was chosen as the destination of many of the finest mathematical brains from Oxbridge. They would work in the ‘huts’ and stations at Bletchley, in order to try to crack not only the Enigma Code, the encryption machines used by German forces to send their secret military messages, but also the ‘Lorenz’ cipher, used by Hitler and his High Command. Only in the Seventies, the truth about Bletchley Park officially came out. What happened inside this Victorian mansion was so secret, that people working there would not disclose anything to anyone, not even to their family or closest relatives. Winston Churchill called the place “A goose that laid the golden egg and never cackled”.
Eccentric heroes and fine minds were gathered here, supported by more common men and women. By 1944, there were 8,743 staff, three-quarter of whom were women. Among those, a handful of cryptanalysts, code-breakers and others, who had long been dreaming of being of help during wartime, and ended up with the tireless task of coping words on to cards and transcribing or sorting messages overheard on the radio. But without these messages, there wouldn’t have been any code to crack. Thanks to a number of lettered rotors, reset each day, Enigma machines could be configured in 150 million different ways. For this reason, the Germans thought it completely safe. The secret work at Bletchley demanded therefore a great act of cooperation, where hundreds of cryptanalysts and thousands of supporting staff worked together to break codes. It has been estimated that what had been done and discovered at Bletchley Park, shortened the war in Europe by four years.
In ‘The Imitation Game’, the movie based on Alan Turing’s life, all these minor characters and unsung heroes are not much part of the movie, as the focus is on him. But their work is of great importance and – to repeat Turing’s words in the movie: “Sometimes it’s the very people who no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one imagines.”
Turing, skillfully played in the movie by Benedict Cumberbatch, is asked to join a selected team of mathematical eggheads whose task is to break the Enigma code. The British own a stolen Enigma machine and they can receive the daily Nazi missives in coded form, but without being able to read them. Turing, with a quasi- autistic, anti-social personality and unable to relate with people, instead of dedicating his time to find a way to break the codes, manages to lead a team of experts and builds the ‘Bombe’, an artificial cryptanalytical intelligence machine. The team, thanks to this new machine, succeeds in cracking the naval Enigma code, but – and here is the real drama – the group needs to keep the secret in order not to overplay their hand and get the Nazi suspicious. Therefore, Turing figures out a statistical system that will allow them to calculate how many allied casualties they must stand, and how many lives they are able to save.
After the war, while working at the National Physical Laboratory, Turing designed the ACE ( Automatic Computing Engine). Turing was definitely ahead of his times, and in the Touring Test on artificial intelligence, he asked the following question: “Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?”. Would computers be able to answer questions in a way that men cannot distinguish if the answer has been given by a man or by a computer? The study takes into consideration the machine’s ability to show an intelligent behavior equivalent to that of a human.
Despite having proudly served his country during the war, and despite all his ensuing important studies, Turing was prosecuted for ‘gross indecency’ in 1952. He had managed to hide his sexual orientation for a long time. During his times at Bletchley, he had even been briefly engaged to Joan Clarke, another big mathematical brain working with him and with whom he developed a very close friendship. One day, in proposing marriage to her, he added: ‘But don’t count on it working it out as I have homosexual tendencies’. Their romance, based on intellectual compatibility rather than on physical attraction, continued for another year, until they called it off, mutually. Once it was discovered that Turing was homosexual, he was constrained into home confinement and forced to take estrogen injections, as a form of chemical castration, to avoid imprisonment. As a substitute for the injections, he later had a slow-release device implanted in his thigh. This ordeal was supposed to stop after two years, but it did not. One can only imagine the terrible psychological and physical effects that this ‘treatment’ had on him. Turing committed suicide before turning 42, ingesting cyanide. Following an Internet campaign in 2009, then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology and, in 2013, Turing received a posthumous Royal Pardon.
Cumberbatch – the actor representing Turing in the movie – and Turing’s family, have just recently signed an open letter, petitioning for 49,000 gay men convicted under the old homosexuality law. They asked that these men receive the same treatment as Turing’s and be pardoned. Despite the many supporters, the plea did not receive the attention it deserved. Sadly.
In the meantime, a 56-page Alan Turing’s manuscript, dating back to 1942, his time at Bletchley Park, has been recovered and will be put on auction on 13th of April 2015. It is expected that it may fetch at least £1m. According to Bonhams Auction, its mathematical content will give an extraordinary insight into one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.