Monday, August 3, 2015

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Once upon a time, in my youth, I was the quintessential math nerd. Who am I kidding? I was a geek through and through in STEM fields. My life was a cross between That 70s Show and The Big Bang Theory and if you mind-melded together the characters of Eric and Leonard, it would pretty much describe my life. This book about mathematician Alan Turing stirred up a lot of old memories of fun times solving math problems. No, that's not an oxymoron, people!

Turing was one of the key figures in Great Britain's WWII effort to decrypt the secret communications of the German armed forces using the Enigma device. There's a pretty good description of the strategies employed and the counter-strategies that the Germans attempted to stay one step ahead of their foes.

One of the interesting things the British did to help them decipher the code was to plant mines in particular locations specifically chosen so that the Germans found them easily. Then, when the Germans sent messages back to headquarters to report the discoveries, the British knew what the content had to include (locations), and were able to use these as a key to decipher the rest of the message.

Turing was a homosexual, back in the times when that was still a criminal act in England, and he eventually may have committed suicide after being convicted of unnatural acts, chemically castrated by the government, and denied permission to work for the government in any capacity from that point forward due to security concerns. The book spends an awful lot of time interpreting nearly everything that Turing wrote, spoke or accomplished in terms of his sexuality, but if you ignore most of that, it's still an interesting, though tragic, story.

Fun quote:

"In Newman's laboratory, the walls were covered with brown tiles in what F.C. Williams, his partner in the project, called, a 'late lavatorial' style."

One of Turing's early creations, a computer called "Baby" was set to the initial task of testing Mersenne primes, a task which involved many man hours of calculations. Turing envisioned a time when his machines would become almost human, but I don't think he really had any concept of what the computer revolution would accomplish, and even though Siri sounds almost human at times, computers still have not evolved consciousness, nor have they become inventive or creative.

He also had the odd idea that computers could be taught by  method similar to the one we often use to raise children, with both reward and punishment.

I've certainly been tempted to punish mine...but I think it's got the upper hand.

No comments: