Tag Archives: Alan Turing


27 Dec

I was a terrible math student. I wasn’t the worst of the worst, but I was lazy: easily bored and content to hand in work representative of the least amount of effort required to obtain B after B. I hit the wall early, and it wasn’t because I didn’t understand (at least not at first), but because I wasn’t interested. The points of connection I found in English, history, and biology just weren’t there in math, either because I wasn’t trying hard enough to find them or because they weren’t there to be found.

There has been one exception.

My school was big on the Day of Silence. Probably something like forty of the sixty kids in my class participated. In that atmosphere it was fairly easy to take a stand and take part, but even so some teachers made it easier than others.

My history teacher thought it was a fairly toothless show of solidarity. My English teacher wasn’t talking either. My biology teacher showed a film. My algebra teacher waited until we were all settled.

“I know some of you are choosing to remain silent today. I wanted to take a moment to tell you the story of a famous mathematician, Alan Turing.”

He told the story briefly: mathematical genius, father of computer technology, Bletchley Park tenure, conviction for homosexuality, suicide. He gave a gloss of the aspects of modern life that wouldn’t look the same without Turing.

I sat in my chair, rapt. It may have been late to realize this (it may have been early), but it was the first time in my life that I can remember being aware of subjects intersecting. Math and history. History and politics. Math and politics. Math and history and politics and narrative. Math and history and politics and narrative and all of us sitting in that room and what we were going to do with this knowledge.

Since that day, I’ve read and watched Breaking the Code. I’ve read and loved Cryptonomicon. Today I watched The Imitation Game.

The movie had its faults*, which others have ably described. So did Breaking the Code. What I loved about The Imitation Game today was that it made me think of my high school algebra teacher, who taught my most hated subject, who assigned my most mishandled homework, and who made such an impression on me.

When I read Cryptonomicon and when I watched The Imitation Game, for hours at a time I was interested in math, not just in Alan Turing. In math and its ability to be as life-saving and world-changing as anything else. For someone like me, that’s quite the revelation, one worth having over and over. And for people who don’t know, and are seeking points of intersection and connection and challenge, Alan Turing’s story isn’t a bad place to start.


*Don’t get me started on the John Cairncross thing. This blog used to be a blog about John Cairncross-era spies. If I start I’ll never stop.