People of Science: Alan Turing

By The Royal Society

People of Science with Brian Cox - Dame Wendy Hall (2019) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

Portrait of Alan Mathison Turing (1951) by Walter StonemanThe Royal Society

Alan Turing (1912-1954): machines and patterns

Celebrated on his Manchester memorial as "Father of computer science, mathematician, logician, wartime codebreaker, victim of prejudice", Alan Turing contributed foundational findings to computer science and biology. This story celebrates the variety of his scientific contributions.

By Francis MillerLIFE Photo Collection

In 1936, Turing described an automated machine which became an essential building block for the first electronic computers.

The 'Turing machine' is a mathematical model which defines the computing operations that can be performed by a machine that mechanically operates on a tape. It is still used today as a theoretical computational model.

LIFE Photo Collection

During WWII, Turing was tasked with deciphering the military codes generated by the Enigma encryption machine used by the German armed forces and their allies.

Bletchley Park, West Bletchley, Milton Keynes (2003-09-23) by English HeritageHistoric England

Turing had previously worked for the British Government’s Code and Cypher School (GC&CS).

In 1939, he took up a full-time role at the secret headquarters of the GC&CS at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire.

Bletchley Park House, Wilton Avenue, West Bletchley, Milton Keynes (2003-08-12) by Pat Payne, English HeritageHistoric England

He headed the ‘Hut 8’ team in charge of cracking German naval signals and was part of the first team of codebreakers to break into Enigma in 1940.

Turing worked along two other mathematicians: John Jeffreys and Peter Twinn. In the shadows of the cryptanalysts, over 75% of the workforce in Bletchley Park were women.

People of Science with Brian Cox - Dame Wendy Hall (2019) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

The efforts of the Bletchley codebreakers may have shortened the war by several years and certainly helped steer the outcome of the conflict.

Here, you can take a tour of Hut 8 and Turing's Office.

Royal Society Fellowship election certificate for Alan Mathison Turing (1951) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

After the war, Turing turned back to his original research on computing machines and his contribution to the field led to his election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1951.

He was recognised both for solving theoretical mathematical problems and for his work on the actual design of computers at the Manchester Computing Machine Laboratory.

First page of 'The chemical basis of morphogenesis' (1952) by Alan Mathison TuringThe Royal Society

In 1951, Turing took a new and fascinating research direction: theoretical biology.

In a paper published in the Royal Society journal, Philosophical Transactions B, he introduced how patterns such as stripes, spots and spirals may arise naturally.

Illustration of a Turing pattern in 'The chemical basis of morphogenesis' (1952) by Alan Mathison TuringThe Royal Society

What is now known as 'Turing patterns' result from reaction and diffusion. Turing offered a mathematical model which explained how "random fluctuations can drive the emergence of pattern and structure from initial uniformity".

This paper is regarded as foundational for theoretical biology.

Alan Turing Memorial, Sackville Park, Fairfield Street, Manchester (2018-06-22) by Lucy Millson-Watkins, Historic EnglandHistoric England

Turing's premature death in 1954 cut his stellar scientific career short.

In 1952, following his arrest for homosexuality - then illegal in Britain - Alan Turing accepted chemical castration in lieu of sentencing. Only two years later, he died of cyanide poisoning.

His conviction was overturned in 2013.

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