Just to show that not every mathematician looks like Grisha Perelman, the crazy Russian who won't take a million dollars even if you hand it right to him, here is a picture of the neatly groomed and boyishly handsome Alan Turing, easily one of the most important figures of the early history of computer science. People in that field will know immediately what a Turing machine is, and will likely be familiar with Turing's test for artificial intelligence. Turing was also the leading light at Bletchley Park during World War II, the place were many of the German secret codes were broken. He is given nearly full credit for breaking the Enigma and Lorenz codes by building an early computer code breaking machine nicknamed The Bombe.
Given that we are in the middle of the election season, it's a good time to bring up that Turing proved the Central Limit Theorem. This says that if you take a "random" sample of size n of a large population, you can give a probability of how close the proportions in the sample are to the the proportions in the underlying population of some set of attributes, like who will vote for Duncan Hunter (almost nobody) or who likes cake (almost everybody). I put random in quotes because getting a representative sample in a population of humans is a tricky proposition.
For all the math he did, I think Alan Turing's personal life is actually more compelling than his considerable professional accomplishments. Alan Turing was gay. Flamboyantly gay. Gay as gay can be and anybody could know it if they wanted to know it.
The correct thing to say now is "Not that there's anything wrong that." But back then in England, there was something wrong with it. It was against the law. As in caught and thrown in jail like Oscar Wilde was in the previous century. Turing was caught, tried and convicted. Instead of being jailed, he lost his security clearance and was given the option of taking estrogen to "cure" him of his tendencies.
You might ask, estrogen to cure male homosexuality? Matty Boy, does that work? The easy answer is, do you hear anyone calling that a cure today? No, you don't. They were guessing, using Turing as a guinea pig in a test. Estrogen supplements don't change male homosexuals in the way the folks who wanted to change Turing had hoped. The treatments did make his boobs bigger.
Another unusual thing about Turing is his death. He died in 1954 at the age of 41 from eating a poison apple. He was working with chemicals used for electroplating, which includes cyanide, and he either put the chemicals on the apple intentionally, which is the official autopsy report version, or it was accidental, which is what his mum believed. In either case, one of the great mathematical minds of the 20th Century was stilled too soon.
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30 January 2015
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