Thursday, 22 January 2015

Hedy Lamarr, Actress, Mathematician and Inventor

She was a film-star in the most glamorous era of Hollywood, between the 1930s and 1950s, and was hyped by the MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’, but Hedy Lamarr was definitely not just a pretty face.  Hedy earned her place on this blog because of her pioneering work on anti-torpedo systems.  Like Alan Turin, Hedy wanted to use her flair for science and invention to help the US Navy in the anti-Nazi war-effort of the 1940s.  Alan Turin’s achievement in developing pioneering computer systems to crack the Enigma code is now well-known; largely thanks to the recent block-buster film The Imitation Game.

Sadly for Hedy Lamarr and the US Navy, her ideas, though way ahead of their time, were not taken seriously, and were ignored during the war years. In fact she was advised by National Inventors’ Council that she would better help the war effort by using her celebrity status to sell War Bonds. How condescending!

Her ideas were finally taken up in the 1960s, and were implemented on naval ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Her invention concerned radio-controlled torpedoes, which were used by the Germans during World War II and wreaked havoc among the allies. She realised that it would be possible to send the destructive missiles off course by jamming the radio signals that were guiding them.  The idea was to transmit interference at the same frequency as the missile guidance system. 

In collaboration with the technologically-minded composer George Antheil, a friend and neighbour of Lamarr, she developed and patented the ingenious concept of ‘frequency-hopping’.  This was partly inspired by Antheil’s musical know-how, and deployed a piano roll mechanism from a player-piano (aka Pianola) to change the frequency of the interference in an unpredictable way. The piano roll allowed them to use 88 different frequencies relating to the 88 keys on a piano: - too many frequencies for the enemy to scan.

Lamarr's talent for invention didn't stop with the frequency-hopping idea.  She also came up with "bouillon" cubes designed to turn plain water into a Coke-like drink.  Sadly this was a bit of a flop as it tasted disgusting.  There was another idea for a "skin-tautening technique based on the principles of the accordion" which was no doubt inspired by the need to maintain her good looks for the sake of her movie career. This was a sad pre-shadowing of her disastrous experiences with plastic surgery, which left her disfigured and reluctant to leave the house at all in her later years.

Little is known about her early life and education in Austria, and I wonder what it was that inspired her interest in technology. By the age of seventeen she was already starring in her first film role, so she cannot have had a huge amount of scientific education.  Maybe it had something to do with her first marriage to Friedrich Mandl, who was chairman of a leading Austrian armaments company founded by his father. Whatever the cause, her interest was more than just a passing fad.  According to her biographer, Richard Rhodes,

She set aside one room in her home, had a drafting table installed with the proper lighting, and the proper tools - had a whole wall in the room of engineering reference books

During her lifetime Hedy never received any recognition for her scientific ideas, and didn’t make a penny out of her frequency-hopping patent, which was signed over to the US Navy for free in the 60s. There has been a lot of interest in the patent in recent years, and Lamarr and Antheil were inducted into the Inventor's Hall of Fame in 2014, 14 years after her death.  The important legacy of their idea is that it helped to create a foundation for the current boom in IT and communications, such as Blue-tooth, CDMA and COFDM.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

If I ask you to close your eyes for a minute and think about presents being delivered to your door on Christmas Eve you will probably conjure up an image something like this. A Nordic sleigh, packed to the gunnels with neatly wrapped gifts, pulled by a team of flying reindeer, and driven by a cheery bespectacled old gentleman, clad head to toe in red and white furs.

Far below lies a snowy winter landscape with lights twinkling around the village green.  Inside the houses the children have gone to bed but are too excited to get to sleep.

That is the traditional image, but it looks set to change.  This year is going to be the biggest year yet for online Christmas shopping.  It is convenient and easy, but it has led to a massive increase in road traffic as an army of independent delivery companies vie for the lucrative business.  Most of the time the system works well.  I live in the middle of nowhere, but the van drivers are happy to deliver to my door.  On one or two occasions I have placed an online order at 9:00 in the evening, and been woken up at 8:00 the next morning as the parcel is delivered. That is great service.

Now online retail giant Amazon is upping the ante.  It is already way too easy to purchase goods on Amazon, and they are dedicated to making it even easier for us customers and much more profitable for them.  The latest idea is to replace the road-bound vans with a fleet of high-tech unmanned flying delivery drones.

The vision for the new service, called Amazon Prime Air, is to get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less, and Amazon wants to roll it out to all their customers worldwide as soon as possible.  Unbelievable as it may sound, the technology to do this is not Science Fiction.  It already exists, admittedly primarily for military purposes at present, and the biggest obstacles to bringing it online as a commercial enterprise will be to overcome security and safety issues and persuade governments and aviation authorities around the world to grant operating  licences. 

The drones are also known as SUAs, or Small, Unmanned Aircraft Systems.  In the USA, Congress and the Federal Aviation Authority want to see them integrated into the existing national airspace system and operating commercially as soon as possible.  Amazon has a research laboratory in Seattle which is working on turning the vision into reality.  

According to Paul Misener, Amazon’s Vice President of Global Public Policy in an open letter to the FAA, advances made there over the last year include
  • Testing a range of capabilities for our eighth and ninth generation aerial vehicles, including agility, flight duration, redundancy, and sense and avoid sensors and algorithms
  • Developing aerial vehicles that travel over 50 miles per hour, and will carry 5 pound payloads, which cover 86% of products sold on Amazon
  • Attracting a growing team of world-renowned roboticists, scientists, aeronautical engineers, remote sensing experts, and a former NASA astronaut.
Currently, due to FAA rules and regulations, Amazon Prime Air is limited to testing their drones indoors or outside of the USA, and they are seeking permission to have these rules relaxed.  This is a bit worrying, given recent reports I have seen in the US press of near-collisions and other dangerous encounters caused by drones.  According to the Washington Post
Since June 1, commercial airlines, private pilots and air-traffic controllers have alerted the FAA to 25 episodes in which small drones came within a few seconds or a few feet of crashing into much larger aircraft

Now Amazon is moving some or its Prime Air R&D operations to the UK. If you happen to be an experienced flight test engineer or a research scientist living in the Cambridge area, there are job opportunities for you.  If you are an innocent passer-by: wear a safety helmet! Santa and his reindeer are not the only air traffic that you are likely to encounter as you stagger home from the pub on Christmas Eve.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Thursday, 7 August 2014

What has Happened to the Bees?

There has been a lot of anxiety about bees lately. Rightly so, because, although they may look small and insignificant, the human race could not get on without them.   

Bees are responsible for pollinating three quarters of the world’s most important crops, and now they are under threat. Back in the 1970s, bee-keepers around the world started to report that honey bees were abandoning their hives en masse, for no apparent reason.

From 2006 this phenomenon, now know as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, started to increase at a truly alarming rate.  North America and the UK have bee especially badly affected. 

What does that mean for us? Don’t be fooled into thinking that the only foodstuff bees provide is honey.  Honey is a wonderful thing, no doubt, but bees provide us with so much more than that. Bees are pollinators, which means they transfer grains of pollen from one flower to another, an essential step in allowing plants to reproduce. About 90% of the world’s wild plants depend on pollinators, and farm crops depend on them too.

With a fast-growing human population world-wide, it is becoming increasingly challenging to find ways to feed everybody.  If the bees were to disappear, things would get even worse; the crops would not be pollinated, and soon there would be no fruit and vegetables. As things stand at the moment, we have no feasible man-made solution to replace or replicate what the pollinating insects do for us. With current technology, it is estimated that it would cost UK farmers alone £1.8 billion a year to pollinate their crop without bees.

 Some Amazing Facts About Bees

  • Honey bees must visit some 2 million flowers and travel 55,000 miles to make one pound of honey

  • The average honey bee flies between 12 and 15 miles per hour and flaps its wings about 12,000 times per minute

  • Bees are sensitive to the Earth's magnetic field and can use it to navigate between nectar sources and the hive

  • Bees communicate with one another using a complex language based on dancing waggling and shaking. Using these movements honey bee scouts can report back to the rest of the hive about the exact location of the best nectar sources, giving directions accurate to within 15 feet

Causes of Colony Collapse Disorder

Theories about the cause of CCD abound, and include parasites, GM crops, insecticides and radiation, but the truth is that nobody truly understands the cause, and until we do, we cannot be sure how to stop it happening. The most likely culprit for the phenomenon is the proliferation of intensive farming methods, especially the use of certain pesticides. According to the Soil Association:-
 There is strong evidence that neonicotinoids – a class of pesticide first used in agriculture in the mid 1990s at exactly the time when mass bee disappearances started occurring – are involved in the deaths. Another major factor is intensive agriculture – monoculture's and the widespread use of pesticide and herbicide contribute to a loss of habitat and food for bees.

Some Practical Things we Can All do to Help the Bees and Combat CCD  

 You don’t have to be a farmer to make a difference: you can use bee-friendly, organic techniques in your own garden.  For example, try and create bio-diversity by planting a wide variety of  flowers, trees and shrubs: the greater the variety the better! Don’t be too tidy: leave wild flowering plants  in place.  Many so-called ‘weeds’, provide an important source of late season winter food for bees. You could even plant a specific garden for bees, including flowers like rosemary, geraniums, lavender, poppies and sunflowers. It goes without saying that the most important thing you can do is to avoid the use of pesticides in your garden.

There is a ray of hope on the horizon. I am a keen plants woman, and spend a lot of time out of doors in my own garden and on my allotment, and although this is not a hard, scientifically demonstrable fact, this summer I have noticed a distinct increase in the local bee population.  Here in the UK we have just experienced a couple of years of warm summers and mild winters. Maybe this is only a local phenomenon, but it is likely that the recent good weather is one factor  that has played its part in helping the bees. The whole truth is likely to prove a whole lot more complicated.  We have been relying on bees, cultivating and studying them for hundreds of years, but there is still a lot for us to learn about CCD and the fascinating life of the hive.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

From the World’s Fair: Isaac Asimov’s Predictions for 2014

The World’s Fair of 1964 was a spectacular showcase of mid-twentieth Century culture and technology, and the third such event to be held in the city of New York. It ran for two six-month seasons, April–October 1964 and April-October 1965. Admission cost $2 for adults and $1 for children. 1964 was the height of the Cold War between East and West, and so it was fitting that the theme of the Fair was ‘Peace through Understanding’. It also came at a time in the history of the US when the economy was booming, post-war consumerism was on the up and up, the Space Race was just getting off the starting blocks, and US citizens were hungry for consumer goods, technology and gadgetry.  More than 51 million people attended the fair, and one of them was the author Isaac Asimov.
The World's Fair, 1964

Asimov was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, and a successful and popular author, who in his lifetime wrote over five hundred books.  He was best known for his science fiction works including the Foundation and Robot Series, and for his influential ideas about the future of society.  
For the purposes of this blog, I think we can safely say that qualifies him as a Geek.

On August 16, 1964 the New York Times published an article by him based on his visit, called Visit to the World’s Fair of 1964, in which he makes some interesting predictions about the year 2014. His predictions were largely inspired by the General Electric Pavilion, which had exhibits showing what life was like in 1900, 1920, 1940 and 1960. They got him wondering how things would be another fifty years in the future, in 2014. It is now 2014; we are living in the future imagined by Isaac Asimov. What was his vision and did he get it right?

The Predictions

1. The Home Environment
His first prediction was a general withdrawal from Nature, with mankind using technology to manipulate the environment to suit himself.  He thought that houses would be built underground to protect them from the vicissitudes of the weather; pollution could be filtered out, and the temperature and light levels would be artificially controlled. The inhabitants of 2014, he thought, would be freed from tedious routine jobs by machines and household gadgetry, including a fully-automated kitchen that would prepare all your food for you. Hmm, well, I do have some gadgets in my kitchen, like a dishwasher and a Magimix, but I am not entirely sure that they are actually labour-saving devices, and my 21st Century life is definitely not free from household drudgery.

2. Robots and Computers
I think I probably have a better chance at training my feckless better half to do something useful than of getting a household robot. Robots would be around, Asimov thought, but he predicted they would not be very good or very common. He was right there: think about lawn-mowing robots and the production line in a 21st Century car factory, for instance.  He noted that IBM had a stand dedicated to computers, and rightly speculated that in the future they would be much smarter and much smaller.

3. Energy
Isaac Asimov
I would give him full marks for saying that increased use of high-performance batteries will mean that electrical appliances will not need electric cords.  Tick! Energy: fusion power would still a long way off, he correctly thought. He was also correct in predicting the increasing importance of solar power, imagining large solar power stations springing up in desert and semi-desert regions such as Arizona, the Negev and Kazakhstan.

4. Transport
Regarding transportation, he did not quite get it right.  He envisaged that the car and other wheel-based modes of transport would be gradually phased out, and that the vehicles of 2014 would hover above the land or the sea, making traffic snarl-ups a thing of the past. If only he had been right on that one, my rush-hour commute to work would be a lot easier and would feature robot-driven cars and moving sidewalks. In 2014 compressed air tubes would carry goods and materials over local stretches, he said. Has Amazon thought of this one yet? Last thing I heard they were contemplating unmanned drones for their parcel delivery system, a truly terrifying prospect!

5. Communications
He had a glimpse of the power and proliferation of mobile devices, predicting that phones will be visual as well as audio, and that people will be able to use their phone screen for reading books, studying documents and viewing photos as well as for tele-visual phone calls.   Nice one Isaac. He thought we would be able to use the new-style phones to contact the colonies on the moon: wrong! Although, to be fair, if the US space program had continued with its lunar exploration and gone on to create colonies there, I am pretty sure we would have found a way to use our mobile phones to keep in touch with them.

6. Population Growth
He was right to predict that there would be a huge increase in world population levels (from around three billion in 1964 to well over seven billion today) but wrongly thought that this would force mankind to seek to colonise desert and polar regions, even under the oceans.

7. Social Inequality
He correctly predicted that the advanced technology of 2014 would not be available to most of the world’s poorer inhabitants.  In his own words:
Although technology will still keep up with population through 2014, it will be only through a supreme effort and with but partial success. Not all the world's population will enjoy the gadgetry world of the future to the full. A larger portion than today will be deprived and although they may be better off, materially, than today, they will be further behind when compared with the advanced portions of the world. 

8. The Rise of Technology
He thought that technology would be so important that it would become the most important subject of study in schools:
Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders. Schools will have to be oriented in this direction. Part of the General Electric exhibit today consists of a school of the future in which such present realities as closed-circuit TV and programmed tapes aid the teaching process. It is not only the techniques of teaching that will advance, however, but also the subject matter that will change. All the high-school students will be taught the fundamentals of computer technology will become proficient in binary arithmetic and will be trained to perfection in the use of the computer languages that will have developed out of those like the contemporary "Fortran" (from "formula translation").
He was right: technology is given pre-eminence in our schools, but I think he failed to see how easy it would be to use computer technology.  For many of us it has become a fundamental and indispensable part of our everyday lives, even though most of us have not the slightest inkling about binary arithmetic or computer language such as FORTRAN.

9. Enforced Leisure and Boredom 
His greatest concern was that all that technology would make the people of the future unhealthy, lazy and bored:
Even so, mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014. The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine.
Indeed, the most sombre speculation I can make about A.D. 2014 is that in a society of enforced leisure, the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!

Sorry Isaac; I can’t agree with you there: I have plenty of things to do with my leisure time that have nothing to do with robots, computers or gadgets, and there is still a lot more to 21st Century life than machine–tending, though I must admit I spend a lot of time worrying about keeping my Smartphone, Kindle and camera batteries charged up.

Nor did he predict the social and creative aspects of computer technology.  Think about all those social networks, all that photo-shopping, blogging and sharing: today we are obsessed with journalising, photographing, commenting, tweeting and sharing our lives, and today there are more outlets for human creativity than ever.  I must say, he was dead right about the predominance of psychiatric medicine, though happily this is more because of increased awareness of the importance of mental and emotional well-being than because of boredom.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

James Lovelock – Unlocked!

James Lovelock
James Lovelock is a true genius: an original, maverick, and influential 94 year-old British scientist, he is most famous for his Gaia hypothesis, which views the Earth as a self-regulating, single organism. When the theory was first propounded in the early 1970s, it was largely ignored by the scientific community.  I think this may have been due to the connotations of the name Lovelock chose; Lovelock himself said that naming his theory after a Greek goddess resulted in his ideas being picked up and championed by many non-scientists.  The Gaia Hypothesis appealed to hippies, freethinkers and environmentalists, and many people in search of alternative life-styles chose to latch on to his ideas, interpreting them as a kind of neo-Pagan religion.  I have nothing against hippies, greens and alternative life styles:  it just seems a shame that for a long time the Gaia Theory was associated with some whacky ideas which led to it being labelled as ‘unscientific', and attracting ridicule from other leading scientists and thinkers including Richard Dawkins.

The hypothesis  suggests that the Earth and its natural cycles can be thought of like a living organism. When one natural cycle starts to go out of balance other cycles work to bring it back, continually optimising the conditions for life on Earth. The theory helps to explain some of the more unusual features of planet Earth, such as as why the atmosphere isn't mostly carbon dioxide, and why the oceans aren't more salty.

The Gaia Hypothesis was based on Lovelock's own ideas and observations, but was originally lacking a thorough scientific explanation. Times change however, and these days it is a different story. By the time of the second Chapman Conference on the Gaia Hypothesis, held at Valencia, Spain, in June 2000, concerns about environmental and ecological issues looming large, Lovelock's ideas were being taken more seriously, and there was a huge interest in the developing science of Bio-geophysiology.   

The Earth seen from Apollo 17

Think about it: Hurricane Katrina, Tsunamis, the Fukushima Disaster, flooding in the UK, droughts, the melting of the Polar ice-caps, El Nino, the mudslide in Washington StateGlobal warming, climate change, rises in ocean levels and the increasing frequency of terrifying extreme weather events in recent years mean that there is now an urgent need to seriously, scientifically and holistically address issues of climate change, environmental destruction and global pollution. We have all been forced to think more deeply about our home planet and how human intervention is affecting the global environment. Gaia Hypothesis and its holistic approach to thinking about the Earth is now being taken extremely seriously and is used in subjects such as geophysiology, Earth system science, biogeochemistry, systems ecology, and climate science.

Lovelock’s huge contribution to science has been widely recognised and rewarded. As well as  being created Companion of Honour and Commander of the Order of the British Empire, he became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974 and in 2006 the Geological Society of London awarded Lovelock its highest honour, the Wollaston Medal, largely for his work on the Gaia theory.

Dig Deeper

You can learn more about Lovelock and his pioneering ideas at the Science Museum in London.  This year (April 2014 – April 2015) they are staging an exhibition about him. Among the highlights of the exhibition, called Unlocking Lovelock,  are his laboratory notebooks, drafts of his papers and equipment from the laboratory in his back garden, where some of his most important work was done. The exhibition also features tools used by Lovelock to build many of his inventions, including a watchmaker’s lathe and the home-made gas chromatography equipment that journeyed to the Antarctic and back and proved crucial to scientists’ current understanding of global atmospheric pollution.

Books About Gaia by James Lovelock

1979     Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth
1988    The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth
1991     Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine,
2000     Homage to Gaia : The Life of an Independent Scientist (Independent Voices)
2006    Medicine for an Ailing Planet
2007    The Revenge of Gaia
2010    The Vanishing Face of Gaia: a Final Warning            
2014    A Rough Ride to the Future                                                     

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Mobius Strip

If you have never heard of it before this mathematical curiosity will blow your mind.To be quite honest though, maybe it only blew MY mind because of my lamentable lack of spatial awareness.  Being a typical girl, I cannot parallel park and I cannot turn a cartwheel.  (Though now in my 50s I am a rather elderly girl and have pretty much given up on that one).  I must also admit that, as a student, I was no mathematical genius.  Always more of a words than a numbers person, I only managed to scrape a reasonable GCSE grade thanks to the unbelievable patience and remedial efforts of my lovely maths teacher Miss Williams. Nearly 40 years ago she had the dubious honour of trying to instill a basic grasp of the rudiments of arithmetic, algebra, and geometry into my thick skull, and she is still receiving therapy for that today. That poor woman deserves a medal. 

Mobius Strip with Ants, by Escher

Nonetheless, although I am no mathematician, I can safely say I am a true Geek. That is to say, I am curious about the world around me and take a keen interest in all sorts of subjects, whether or not I am any good at them. I was reminded of this intriguing phenomenon just last week when the cold English winter drove me out to the shops to look for a cosy winter scarf, and I found one in the form of a Mobius Strip. The paradox of the Mobius Strip made a big impression on me when I first learned about it, and I hope you will find it interesting too. 

Sometimes also known as the Mobius band, the Mobius Strip was discovered in 1858 by August Ferdinand Möbius and also (coincidentally and independently) by Johann Benedict Listing, both German mathematicians. Like many of the best ideas, the basic concept is simple, and childishly easy to demonstrate.  By the way, for anyone with young kids, this is a good way to get them interested in mathematics.  It’s never too early to start training a Geek!

All you need to do this is some paper and glue or sticky tape.  Start by making a long paper strip: it doesn’t particularly matter how long or how wide you make it, but say 5 cm wide by 30 cm long, for example.  Now take your glue or a bit of sticky tape. You are going to stick the two ends together, but before you do that, just put a half-twist in the band of paper, et voila!  You have a Mobius strip. 

By introducing that simple half-twist you will find that your two-sided strip of paper has now miraculously become a single-sided strip.  It is no longer possible to take two coloured pencils and colour the strip differently on either side. Don’t believe me?  Just try it. Now you have made your Mobius strip, you can start playing.  

Some Mobius Strip Experiments

First, try taking a pen and drawing a line along one side of the paper, and see what happens.  You will find that you cover the entire surface of the strip, over what used to be both sides of your paper.  This proves that it has now become a continuous one-sided band.

Now take a pair of scissors and cut along the middle of your Mobius strip     lengthways, along the line you have just drawn.  You will find that is stays in one piece, twice as long as the original.

Draw a new line on your strip, about a third along its width.  Once again, you will find the line eventually joins up to the point you started from.

Now cut along your newly drawn line. What do you think is going to happen?  I bet you didn’t guess that you would end up with two linked loops!

Mobius Strips in Literature

If you enjoy reading classic American authors and humorists like Mark Twain, Damon Runyon and Bill Bryson you should check out William Hazlett Upson.  Back in the 1940s and 1950s  he wrote a series of short stories for the Saturday Evening Post newspaper about Alexander Botts, a salesman for the Earthworm Tractor Company.  In A Botts and the Mobius Strip the eponymous hero thwarts his boss by restitching a factory conveyor belt into the form of a Mobius Strip, thus preventing the outside of the belt from being painted a different colour from the inside. TBH, I have not actually read this yet.  I got as far as visiting the Amazon store, and found a copy of the Alexander Botts Earthwork Tractors collection priced at £1,539.65.  I was naively hoping for a free download for my Kindle, but no such luck! 

Moving to the world of Sci-Fi, in The Wall of Darkness by Arthur C Clarke, the universe is re-imagined as a Mobius Strip, and in A Subway Named Mobius by AJ Deutsch the Boston underground network becomes so huge and complex that  the system starts to behave according to some mysterious mathematical principles, causing trains to disappear.  Also worthy of mention in this context are John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, Vladimir Nabokov's The Gift, and the movie Donnie Darko.

Finally, a Mobius Strip Joke

Why did the chicken cross the Mobius Strip? To get to the same side, of course.

FootNote: Some Related phenomena for you to Google and introduce in your geeky maths lessons:-
Cross cap
Strange Loop
Klein bottle

Thursday, 9 January 2014

The Fall and Rise of Alan Turing

He was a mathematical genius and computer science pioneer, but also a gay British man back in the days when homosexuality was against the law.  Tragically, publicly humiliated after a criminal conviction, and suffering from deep depression, he committed suicide on June 7, 1954 at the age of 41. On that day one of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century, a patriot who had played a key role in defeating the Nazis and saving thousands of lives in the Second World War, was lost forever.

Alan Turing
Who was he?  To be honest, twenty years ago I would probably not have heard of him myself, but today he is one of my heroes.  In case you have been living on a desert island for the last ten years, perhaps I should mention that I am talking about Alan Turing, Englishman, a mathematics professor, a World War II code-breaker, and a pioneer of computer science. 

In the 1930s Turing worked at Cambridge University in the UK and at Princeton University in the US. At this time he developed the idea for a proto-computer known as a Turing Machine, a hypothetical device not intended for practical use, but which was key to helping computer scientists understand the possibilities of mechanical computation.


 His knowledge and love of mathematics led to a fascination with cryptography, and he was recruited to work part-time for the British Secret Service at the Government Code and Cypher School. During the war he became a key member of staff at the top-secret Bletchley Park establishment, and led the team that in 1939 developed the code-breaking electro-mechanical machine known as Bombe. 
The Bombe Code-Breaker

This invention gave the British government an enormous advantage over Germany and the Axis relatively early on in the war. The German military establishment was using an ingenious machine called Enigma to encrypt their military communication. 

So confident were they that the Enigma Code could not be broken, they used it for all sorts of communications on the battlefield, at sea, in the sky and, significantly, within their secret services.   In fact, thanks to Turing’s Bombe, the British were able to read and understand these vital messages; an advantage which is thought to have shortened hostilities by years, and saved may lives.

He later played a vital role in the development of Colossus, the world’s first large-scale electronic digital computer, which was designed by engineer Tommy Flower, and also used by the Bletchley Park code-breakers.

Bletchley Park and the Official Secrets Act

The British Official Secrets Act meant the Alan Turing and Bletchley Park story was kept under wraps until many years later. At the end of the war, much of the Bombe and Colossus equipment and their blueprints was destroyed on Winston Churchill’s orders. It was only in the 1970s that its work was finally made public.  In fact, during the Second World War, Bletchley Park, near Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, was the site of the United Kingdom's main decryption establishment.

The people who worked there all signed the Official Secrets Act, swearing never to talk about the site and the sensitive intelligence activities which were planned there, and most of them took the secret to the grave.  At the time, to most of the staff it was simply known as ‘BP’, although the Wrens (Women's Royal Naval Service personnel) stationed there referred to it as HMS Pembroke V.  These days Bletchley Park has been turned into a museum, but one of its cover names, Government Communications Headquarters, still lives on in the present-day British intelligence centre GCHQ at Cheltenham.

The Post-War Era

In the years following the war Turing's security clearance was withdrawn: homosexuals were considered a bad security risk as they were vulnerable to blackmail, so he could no longer work for British Intelligence. Eventually, in 1952, he was arrested and tried for homosexuality, then a criminal offence. To avoid prison, he submitted to a year-long regime of oestrogen injections, a process popularly known as ‘chemical castration’, which was intended to neutralise his libido.

Then the tide began to turn.  Social attitudes changed over time, gradually becoming more liberal.   The law against homosexual acts in the UK was repealed in 1967 by The Sexual Offences Act.   Late in 2013 Alan Turing received an official royal pardon.  That is fine as far as it goes, but since homosexuality is no longer an offence, why should he be pardoned?  Surely it would be far more appropriate if Alan Turing’s family, friends and supporters could find it in their hearts to pardon the British government for unjustly criminalising him in the first place!  

Sir Alan Turing?

I know, I know, the ‘royal pardon’ is a legal formality, and maybe it does have a value in publicly ‘wiping the slate clean’.  I am only happy that we now live in a more open and enlightened society where people are not marginalised, hounded and barred from fully participating in society due to their colour, creed, gender or sexual orientation.  That’s the theory, anyway.

Now, not content with the pardon alone, many of Alan Turing’s admirers and supporters are now campaigning for him to be given a posthumous knighthood. Many years ago I worked as an Analyst Programmer, and Alan Turing is the most inspiring role model I can think of for anyone working in IT. Since 1966, the Turing Award has been given annually by the Association for Computing Machinery for technical or theoretical contributions to the computing community. It is widely considered to be the computing world's highest honour, equivalent to the Nobel Prize. I am very proud to include him here in my roll-call of honorary Geeks.

Benedict Cumberbatch will play the role of Alan Turing in a forthcoming bio-pic called The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum with screenplay by Graham Moore, due to be released in 2014.