Alan Turing building

I’ve just been to the renaming ceremony of the now Alan Turing Building at the OU.

Martin Bean, Sir Dermot Turing and Mick Bromilow unveil the Alan Turing building plaque at the OU
Photo: Dave Phillips

The VC Martin Bean gave a short speech (with his his usual upbeat delivery) stressing the local connection between the OU and Bletchley Park. According to the publicity office, Martin Bean said: “The plaque on this building serves as a reminder to everyone, every time they walk through these doors, that we draw inspiration from a brilliant man whose life was tragically cut short at such a young age.”

A nephew of Alan Turing, Sir Dermot Turing, formally declared the building open after reading a short passage from his father’s memoirs remembering Alan Turing as a child at prep school – unconventional even then. (I believe Sir Dermot is a lawyer and the title is hereditary from a rather distant branch of the family).

It struck me that naming the building isn’t much of a compliment given that the building itself is an undistinguished 70s barrack, though recently refurbished. However it was home of Maths & Computing at OU for many years, and there are local links between the OU and Bletchley Park where Turing carried out wartime code-breaking. Walton Hall was apparently one of the sites where staff from Bletchley Park were billeted.

Turing’s centenary will be in 2012 so I expect there will be more coverage in the media. It is also Olympic year – and Mick Bromilow reminded us that Turing was a runner who was nearly selected for the marathon in 1948 London Olympic games, coming 5th in trials!

There were a number of talks during the morning which were recorded and so which might turn up as podcasts in time – I will add details if and when I find out.

Andrew Hodges

The first talk was by Andrew Hodges (Oxford University), Turing’s biographer. I highly recommend his book ‘Alan Turing: the enigma of intelligence’. The book was the basis of a play ‘Breaking the Code’ with Derek Jacobi some years ago; there was also a TV adaptation I think. There are puns in both these titles – the Enigma machine and Turing’s work in military intelligence at Bletchley Park with the portrait of a brilliant but highly individual, non-conforming thinker; breaking enemy codes and also breaking social codes as a homosexual at a time when it was still illegal. Andrew Hodges tried to link Turing to the OU (difficult – he died in 1954, before the OU was conceived!) by focusing on the way Turing was able in his papers to make highly abstruse ideas understandable. For instance, AH said that it was the ‘wit and drama’ of the Turing test that captured the imagination. AH speculated that a radio talk given by Turing in 1951 could have led to other appearances on radio and TV if Turing had lived. So Turing would have been a supporter of the OU, had he lived.

Andrew Hodges’ website about Alan Turing is which also includes links to Hodges academic and personal home pages. Hodges is as unconventional as Turing but living in a time of much greater personal freedom. Hodges is openly gay, but in 1952 Turing was prosecuted for indecency, given hormonal treatment and lost his security clearance; he committed suicide in 1954.

Philip Maini

The second talk by Prof Philip Maini (Oxford University, Centre for Integrative Systems Biology on Turing’s work on reaction-diffusion and morphogenesis. This is a field of research still current which was prompted by a mathematical model published by Turing in 1952, showing how patterns (for example spots of a leopard, striped of a tiger, or separate bones in a hand) could arise from the combination of simple physical / chemical processes. The idea is that two processes, reaction and diffusion, operating on slightly different scales, could interact to give patterns. This has been shown in simple chemical systems and Turing suggested that ‘morphogens’ could set up patterns which the developing organism would respond to. This was well before the chemical basis genes was understood but the current idea is that patterns of concentration in some substances act to turn on and off regulatory genes that control further development. A reaction-diffusion system that gives rise to a pattern of concentration in a morphogenic chemical would act as a blueprint revealed by development of structures or patterns – the spots of the leopard, for example.

The Turing connection is two-fold: not only did he write one of the seminal papers, but also the modern approach (Philip Naini says ‘integrative systems biology’ are key words for funders!) relies heavily on very large scale computing for which we have to thank Turing and other computing pioneers. Turing is also inspirational as someone able to work across such different fields as maths and biology; the need for such skills is probably as great today.

Darrel Ince

The third talk was by Prof Darrel Ince (Open University) on ‘Turing’s contributions to Computing’. Darrel Ince has recently edited a collection of Turing’s papers. His talk loosely tied Turing to Darrel’s interests in the failures of large government IT systems (the dinosaurs of the computing world) compared to the successes of loosely connected mashups [he didn’t use the word in this talk but has previously] of many technologies.

(Incidentally – how may Professors does it take to change a PowerPoint presentation? Not sure of the answer, but even though there may have been half a dozen in the room, that wasn’t sufficient to show Darrel’s presentation!)

Tony Sale

The last talk was by Tony Sale from Bletchley Park, which was a quick rattle through of Turing’s contributions to the code-breaking activities based at Bletchley Park (just a few miles from the OU). Turing’s contributions were typical of the man: a combination of deep mathematical insight into the structure of the problem allowing him to identify cryptographic weaknesses, together with an ability to turn abstract maths into concrete objects and practical methods. These included the ‘bombe’ – an electromechanical machine which tested large numbers of permutations of Enigma settings. The bombe was really a mathematical proof by contradiction, turned into wires and wheels. The code breakers started with some received encrypted text and a guess at what the plain text might be (for example the German operators were prone to using their girlfriend’s name as key settings!). The Enigma machine had a cryptographic weakness – a letter could never be encrypted to itself: the letter E might be encrypted as K or T but never as E. So the bombe would run through many settings looking for a chain of encryption that might include a letter encoded to itself; if found, that setting could be ruled out. Large numbers of settings could be ruled out this way, leaving relatively few that needed further checking.

BTW Tony Sale received an honorary degree from the OU last year. There is a short interview with him on Platform

Bletchley Park is well worth a visit some time. The buildings are still quite evocative, though now half swallowed by new development. The rebuilt and replica early wartime machines are impressive; the war memorabilia is quirky; the computing museum fun – and kids do seem to like playing really old computer games! Allow plenty of time for the guided tour given by well informed and enthusiastic volunteers. Web sites for Bletchley park itself and the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park.

Tony Sales’ web site includes stuff about codes and ciphers, the Enigma machine, Colossus rebuilding project and Bletchley Park history.

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