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Alan Turing and the Day of Silence

March 29, 2011

One of the things I wish I did more in my physics classes is to introduce students to more of the history and social implications of science. I personally find the history of science to be fascinating, and books like Age of Wonder (which I’m still dying to read) really make wish I could find a way to share this with students, particularly the idea that science isn’t just the pursuit of stodgy old white men.

Since I teach modeling physics, which puts students in the role of having to discover most of the laws of physics for themselves, I somehow hope this message will just sort of be absorbed by osmosis as they see themselves reflected in their own work, but, in reality, I know this isn’t true.

Typically, I’ve had one day each year where I do digress into a a lecture and give my students a presentation on one aspect of the history of science I find to be particularly important. One of the best history of science shows I’ve ever seen is the show Connections, by James Burke, who is this wonderful charismatic historian, who starts every show off with a modern vignette, like the NYC blackout of 1965, and describes how it all started with the invention of the plow in ancient Egypt. You can watch almost all of these episodes online, if you’re looking something to watch.

So I tell my students about Connections, and how I’m going to try to weave my own little story together, describing how cracking the Enigma, winning a world war, inventing the ipod and Alan Turing are related. You can see the slide deck at the end of this post.

I start with the story Alan Turing, a person who none of my students have ever heard of. I describe how he was a boy deeply fascinated by science, who went on to study math and logic at Cambridge. I tell them about how there was some focus in philosophical circles to prove all of mathematics from the most fundamental principles, and mention Bertrand Russel’s and Afred North Whitehead’s humongous proof of 1+1=2 in Principia Mathematica. We then talk about how this world was thrown upside down by Godel, who showed that even in the most formal system of mathematics, there are some questions that lie outside the reach of logical proof—so called undecidable questions (eg. There is no proof of P). (Every year, I read up more and more on this stuff, and find myself able to explain it to students only with the wildest of hand-waving).

But this is the world Alan Turing found himself in at college, and he was instantly fascinated by the idea of what makes a question decidable. This eventually led turing to imagine a machine (computer) that could perform any question (calculation) using an algorithm (program), and ultimately to theorize that any decidable question should be computable (The church Turing Thesis). This became the big idea of computer science—given enough space and time, any decidable question can be answered by a computer. This imaginary machine predates electronic computers by more than 10 years.

From there, we divert into a brief history of codes and ciphers, and I discuss how breaking encryption really is nothing more than a decidable question that a computer should be able to solve given enough time and storage space. I discuss the german encryption machine, Enigma, used extensively in WWII, and how Alan Turing’s work was critical to breaking its cipher, which gave the Allies a decisive advantage in the war, shortening it by years, and saving many lives.

From there, I take a leap to the ipod, which again, is an example of a turing machine in action.

  • Write music down digitally on a hard disk
  • Build a machine to read and write to that disk
  • Write an algorithm (program) to manipulate that data on the disk and send it to the speaker

But the computer is a universal machine, so it’s easy to change the algorithm to make it record your voice, edit your songs, or even auto-tune to correct your pitch. By adding a camera you can do similar things with photos, and it’s no wonder that thanks to 10 years of Moores Law working on the ipod, you can now use your iphone to translate speech in near real time. But of course, the power of computing also has a down side, as every bad use of your data is just as possible as good uses.

And so, this is where things wind down, and I tell my students that Alan Turing wasn’t just one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, or the key figure in the Allied Victory in WWII, or even just the father of the iPod/iPhone/iPad…

He was also a homosexual. And he was silenced. (I give this talk on the day of Silence—April 15, a day when when students nationwide take a vow of silence to bring attention to anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment in schools”).

Turing admitted a homosexual relationship in 1952, and was charged, tried and convicted of “Gross Indecency” in the british courts. He was forced to consult a psychiatrist, undergo hormone treatment, and lost his security clearance.

In 1954, he became depressed, and committed suicide, dying at age 42, in the prime of his life.

If he had lived, he would be 98 today—what contributions might he have continued to make to society with the rest of his life?

Usually, this is a powerful talk, my students are truly stunned when they learn of the suffering Turing had to endure. Few of my students have heard of the day of silence, and like many schools, many of my students treat homophobic language and harassment far more casually than they should.

And while I to think this talk has an effect on my students, I really wonder if I could transform it to be even more effective by making it more engaging, but I’m not quite sure how.

So I’m throwing it out on the internets for your thoughts, criticisms and ideas. How have I mangled Godel’s theorem or the Church Turing thesis? What would be a good follow up to get my students thinking more about the contributions marginalized people have made to science? How can you extend conversations like this throughout the year?

Many of the ideas in this talk were inspired by and borrowed from Simon Singh, whose book The Code Book gives a fantastic accounting of the race to crack Enigma and a presentation on the power of computers I once saw by Princeton Computer Science Professor Ed Felten.

update: I just found out that a documentary about Alan Turning seems to be in the works, and the trailer looks fantastic. I will definitely add this to my presentation.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Stan Forrester permalink
    March 29, 2011 10:54 pm

    I like to bring up the contributions of women like Anne Jump Cannon (yeah great name) in astronomy or Emily Noether. Their struggles are made very plain to my student when I tell them about the struggles of these brilliant to even find work in their fields.

  2. March 30, 2011 7:40 am

    I agree. History of science is colorful and often horrifying. The topic was never covered when I went to school. And, I was so busy through the rest of my life that I only tapped the subject when I home schooled my kids last year and this. We’ve enjoyed series of books written by Joy Hakim’s series, The Story of Science. Also – our history text – The Human Odyssey – will occasionally touch on the subject.

    I wish, when I’d gone to school that my science teachers had thought to sprinkle in the history about scientific people — it is a great lesson both for personal growth and for understanding of human nature to know just how brave some have had to be when introducing a notion that poses a challenge to previous beliefs. We often hear this through Galileo’s story but there are so many others who have suffered even much worse fates. My mind always turns to Hypatia and how she was literally shredded to pieces by people who did not care for her thoughts and behavior as a woman.

    So very glad you are planning to include the topic as you teach — humans won’t advance if we don’t learn from our past mistakes.

    • April 2, 2011 5:34 pm

      These are all great examples, and I suppose I could introduce more of them in my classes, but I think I’m interested in finding more ways to have students discover them. This is all very vague and unformed at the moment, but I’m thinking of something where students use their experience in my class of how they make discoveries (through collaboration, failure, refinement, and arguments that often critically rely on the perspective of one person in the discussion) to see a connection with how real scientific discoveries are made, and how it truly is a human story, with every bit as much tragedy, triumph, frustration and folly as any you’ll find in literature.

      Hakim’s books are great—but I’m not sure they quite get to what I’m aiming for.

  3. March 30, 2011 8:36 am

    Another benefit of sharing science history is that the math/physics that you are sharing then becomes hard fought treasure rather than just a formula that must be learned because the physics teacher says so. And, for some teens, the fact that a person had to be radical – to assert their individual thoughts – for some that will resonate with their own struggle to become adults.

    Also, another resource that I’m enjoying – a bit heavy for the kids at this point – is Pickover’s book The Math Book. I am enjoying so much that I think I should get hold of his book Archimedes to Hawking.

  4. April 3, 2011 11:49 pm

    Hi, I am visiting as part of an assignment for Dr. Strange’s EDM310 class and will be posting my thoughts about your posts on my blog.
    I love that you are tying so many other subject areas into your lesson. Integration is such a great way to help students make connections and and see how the information they are learning relates to them personally. It is really inspiring to see a teacher taking the initiative to show students that not all great contributors to our world are old straight white men. It is important to provide role models for all of our students. I can see why you can’t get through the lecture without a lot of hand waving. I was riveted by the story of it alone!

    • April 4, 2011 7:23 am

      Thanks! I’m still looking for a way to make this more interactive and have students start to find examples of these stories both in their own lives and in their own research.

  5. April 14, 2011 12:46 am

    A powerful lesson indeed – great science, maths and something serious to think about how we treat fellow human beings. And most likely there will be at least one student in your class that very secretly and quietly will take this story as a sign their life can and will have meaning despite – and be grateful you told it.

    • April 14, 2011 7:50 am

      Thanks! The presentation was yesterday, and I think it was mostly well received. I’m going to post a reflection on in it in the next day or so.


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