Flash Special Edition: Alan Turing Year 2012
Words from the Editor
When asked to name the most important person of the 20th century, “Turing” might not be the first name to come to most people’s minds. But Alan Mathison Turing (June 23rd, 1912 – June 7th, 1954), a British polymath who remains an obscure figure in the public eye, has perhaps shaped contemporary society more than any other individual. As the “father of computer science”, Turing theorized some of the earliest and most central concepts of computing. He was a brilliant mathematician, and he first conceptualized the idea of a computing device called the Turing machine to tackle an abstract mathematical puzzle. Turing expanded on this idea by imagining a “universal computing machine” that can simulate any Turing machine, thereby establishing the theoretical predecessor of today’s computers. Not limiting himself to the realm of theory, he built some of the earliest working digital computing machines. The ingenuity of one man laid the foundation for the digital revolution.
During World War II, Turing’s genius was tapped by the British government to help crack the infamous German encryption machine, the Enigma, an endeavor through which Turing made substantial contributions to the Allied war efforts. And as a computationalist through and through, Turing would go on to apply algorithmic thinking to tackle deep questions about how the mind works and whether computers can think like humans – launching the field of artificial intelligence. He even extended his work to devise theories about how the bodies of plants and animals develop their forms during a process called morphogenesis, establishing an elegant, chemistry-based model whose significance only began to be appreciated decades after his untimely death.
To celebrate the life and legacy of this great mind and fascinating human being, the centenary year of Turing’s birth, 2012, is being marked by events around the world as part of the Alan Turing Year. Conferences will bring together scientists from the multitude of disciplines touched by Turing’s ideas, while lectures, exhibitions and cultural events will aim to increase public awareness of the immense contributions that Turing made to create the world we live in today.
Joining in these celebrations, SITN Flash is proud to present our fourth special edition, covering a range of topics that have been influenced by Turing’s work. Articles written by graduate students from Harvard and MIT will discuss the latest work in fields as diverse as artificial intelligence, developmental biology, cognitive neuroscience, and brain simulation, and look at how Turing’s pioneering ideas shaped, and continue to shape, development in these areas. We report on some of the most cutting-edge research presented at the Turing Centenary Conference that was held at the end of June at Cambridge University, Turing’s alma mater. The Flash is also honored to conduct an interview with Dr. Barbara Liskov, professor of engineering at MIT, who has done some of the most significant research in computer programming, for which she received the 2008 Turing Award. Moreover, as part of our continuing goal of bridging science and other arenas of society, we are pleased to introduce the first Flash article co-written by a natural scientist and a social scientist. This article explores Turing as a person, not just a series of ideas and papers, and examines how the social and cultural factors of Turing’s life went into shaping his scientific work.
I would like to thank all the writers who contributed to this special edition as well as the editorial team that made this project possible. I would also like to thank our illustrator, Shannon McArdel, for once again producing the amazing themed graphics for each article.
Johnny Kung (Harvard Medical School), Managing Editor
Editorial Team: Tyler Ford, Emily Lehrman, Alex Meeske, Jamie Schafer, Laura Strittmatter, Rosa Yoon, Rachel Yunck
Illustrator: Shannon McArdel
Official Website of the Alan Turing Year: http://www.turingcentenary.eu/
The ATY 2012 logo is produced by the Turing Centenary Advisory Committee.