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June 26, 2005

On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem


"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth but supreme beauty, a beauty cold and austere like that of sculpture." - Alan Turing

Wade Rowland argues the "sum of our debt to a gay man." Alan Turing's sexual preferences probably had nothing more to do with his mathematical abilities, a mathematical genius that was critical to winning the War, than his choice of ice cream flavour. But in the end his sexual preferences were the only thing that mattered to a country he had faithfully served.

By the end of the war, the English were running several fully electronic digital computers, code-named Colossus, churning out so much valuable data that Allied planners and strategists were hard-pressed to absorb it all. Historians credit the code-breakers with winning the Battle of the Atlantic; they say they played a decisive role in the later victories that led to the defeat of Hitler's continental armies and ultimately to Germany's unconditional surrender.

It could not have happened without Alan Turing.

To which I would add: hounded to death at 41-years of age, what did Alan Turing never have the opportunity to invent? We not only failed to treat him properly but lost the world he might have made. It is crucial to understand that Turing never made a secret of his sexual preference. This demonstrates something of the disattention to social worlds so typical of most of the mathematicians I have met and was most probably unwise given the time in which he lived. But it strikes me it would be impossible to blackmail a gay man for his sexual preference when it was not a secret he had ever bothered to keep. The threat of blackmail used to deny him access to his work, in other words, was a nonsense and nothing more than an excuse to treat the man badly. Sadly, precisely these sorts of self-serving, irrational excuses are still put about to justify treating gay people unequally before the law fifty years later. All too many of these excuses are propagated using computers whose underlying logic is indebted to a gay man. That isn't just ironic. It is tragic. But such is the logic of the inquisition. If history had seen that line of reasoning consistently win the day we would not be using computers, we would be living in mud huts. And if that logic had killed Alan Turing before the War we might yet to be free of Hitlerism.

So... being igorant, just what is an Entscheidungsproblem when it is at home?

Posted by Ghost of a flea at June 26, 2005 10:43 AM

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