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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Monday March 26 2007

imageMore from Electric Universe (see also here and here), this time about Alan Turing:

There had been some efforts to build a computer in 1820s England, but the prevailing technology of steam engines and ball bearings and metal cogs was too crude ever to make it work. The failure was not just in technology but in imagination.  Even a full century later, in the 1920s, there were many ingenious machines in the world - there were locomotives, and assembly lines, and telephones, and airplanes. But each did only one thing. Everyone accepted the idea that to get a different task done, you needed to build a different machine.

Everyone was wrong. Alan Turing was the man who first showed in persuasive detail how it would be possible to change that. His life ended in tragedy, for although he conceived a perfect, clearly describable computer, and although the new insights about how electrons can leap or seemingly stop might have allowed him to construct it, the technology remained elusive.  New ideas in science don’t automatically produce new machines. He would be lauded in death - but not while he lived.

As a boy, in the 1910s and early 1920s. Alan Turing loved the way he could think his way out of problems. He had trouble distinguishing right and left, so he dabbed a red dot on his left thumb, and then was proud that he could get around as well as other children his age. Soon he could outnavigate both children and adults. At a picnic in Scotland, to get his fathers approval for being suitably brave and adventurous, he found wild honey for the family by drawing the vector lines along which nearby honeybees were flying, and charting their intersection to find the hive.

But as an adolescent and then a young adult, he found it harder and harder to blend in. By the time he was sixteen he realized that he was physically attracted to men, which was bad enough, but he also realized he was without question an intellectual, and in 1920s England, especially at its private schools, that was even worse.

His father was far enough away, serving in India with the Civil Service, not to have to pay much attention, but his mother, who was from a proper upper-middle-dass background, would have none of it. Alan was a normal boy, she insisted, who would one day leam to control his strange musings on beauty, consciousness, and, above all, on science. She was sure he would also - as he seems to have dutifully suggested in his letters from prep school - quite soon bring back for a visit one of those pretty girls he hoped to meet at nice London parties.

Instead, by age seventeen, he’d fallen in love with an older boy at his school, Christopher Morcom. They built telescopes and peered out of their dormitory windows late at night. They read physics books together, and talked about stars, mortality, quantum mechanics, and free will. In their discussions, they ‘usually didn’t agree; Alan happily wrote, ‘which made things much more interesting.’

But then, just a few months after they met, Morcom died of tuberculosis. Turing had been reserved with his mother until then, but now opened his heart: He and Morcom had always felt there was ‘some work for us to do together; he wrote, ‘… [Now] I am left to do it alone; But what was that work?  Many people question their faith after someone they love dies, but adolescent deaths are raw, immensely so: the survivor experiences the intensity of adult emotions, yet can’t place what happened in familiar cycles of life. A hole is ripped in the universe.

Turing seems to have lost whatever religious faith he once had. He angrily dropped the usual Edwardian belief that only the body is lost in death, and that an immortal soul, not made of any earthly substance, lives on. Morcom was gone. People who tried to comfort him by saying his friend somehow survived were liars.

That anger, that belief in cold materialism, was indispensable for the great electrical device that Turing imagined just a few years later. Its hard to conceive of creating an artificial device that duplicates human thinking, if you believe in an immortal soul.  The perishable stuff that the computer has to be made of – the wires or electrons or whatever – will lack all semblance of that soul.  But if you’re sure, with all the anger of adolescence, that nothing but dead earth is what remains when we die, then cold wires will do just as well as any living being.