Andrew Hodges - The Roots of Turing's Genius

December 4, 2014
Image: Christopher_Hawkins Via: Flickr Creative Commons

In the mid-1930's, Alan Turing made the revolutionary discovery that launched the digital age. He proved that information can be translated and communicated using nothing but a series of ones and zeroes. Every digital device we know today uses Turing's mathematics. And that was just the first of Turing's intellectual achievements.Biographer Andrew Hodges explained Turing's genius to Jim Flemming in 2012.

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The host of this program ought to learn something about the history of WW2. Turing did not, repeat not, help save the world from Nazi domination. This is utter nonsense. The policy being pursued by the German National Socialists reflected a longstanding desire, centuries longstanding, to expand eastward into the slavic parts of Europe. They had no desire, nor any plan, to conquer the entire globe.

It is also nonsense to claim that Turing solved the "enigma code". In the first place, no such a thing ever existed. The "enigma' was a cryptographic machine employing many different codes. In the second place, Turing did not work alone. He was part of a large organization employing a varied array of academics pursuing a number of different methods of codebreaking. Turing was collaborating with many of them on an hour-to-hour basis throughout his working day. It is also nonsense to claim that he invented computer programs before computers. What he, and his colleagues, did was develop mathematical formulae, using concepts of mathematical probability, to narrow down the range of possible solutions to any particular decoding problem. It is true that this basic concept did become useful in developing the first computer operating systems. And that development did not happen "later in the forties". In fact, the first computers were developed and deployed during the war itself. And not just in England. Both America and Germany were also successful in this regard.

Finally, it should be noted that England was not the only country to have created a large cryptoanalysis operation during WW2. Turing had counterparts in every other major combatant nation. None of the efforts of these operations was perfect or complete. All were never more than partially successful. It is an open historical queston as to whether the English were more successful against the Germans than the Germans were against the English. The Germans had some sharp people working in their codebreaking organizations, and they did have successes against both the English and the Americans which for a time gave them military advantages. It was by no means a one-way street.