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Celebration Time

The centennial celebrations of Alan Turing's birth might help turn a quiet British genius into an iconic global hero.
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Alan Turing, illustration

Celebrations of the life and work of Alan Turing, who was born in London 100 years ago on June 23, 1912, will take place around the world this year, including major conferences, stage adaptations of Breaking the Code, and academic meetings and workshops about his research and ideas.

The Turing centennial might provide a catalyst for the mathematics and computing communities to revisit Turing’s work, including some of the theories he posed but left unfinished. The centennial is also designed to raise public awareness of a man many call the founding father of computer science, and to place Turing on the pedestal containing science’s most eminent figures.

"Many of the events have an academic focus, but we are also trying to stretch the public’s knowledge of Alan Turing’s history and work," says Barry Cooper, professor of mathematics at the University of Leeds and one of the coordinators of the 2012 Alan Turing Year celebration. Noting the U.K. government’s limited support of computer science, Cooper hopes the Turing centennial will bring together a critical mass of people that will demonstrate computer science’s importance and improve its image among young people.

Turing Year celebrations in 2012 will be a global affair. Some of the countries planning events include Brazil, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and the U.S. ACM is planning a two-day celebration (June 15–16) in San Francisco that will bring together 32 A.M. Turing Award winners (see page 1). In the U.K., two major conferences are being held in Cambridge and Manchester, both places where Turing produced influential work. The University of Cambridge conference, "Computability in Europe 2012: How the World Computes," has the ideas of Turing’s computability proposal as its central theme. The Manchester conference, "Celebrating Turing—Mind, Mechanism and Mathematics," will feature lectures by 16 renowned scientists.

"The celebration is interesting because it is not just one special occasion, but a wide scope of events on an international scale," says John Graham-Cumming, vice president of engineering at Causata and a member of the Turing Centenary Advisory Committee. A television film about Turing was shown on U.K. television in November 2011, and several stage adaptations of Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code, which covers Turing’s work at Bletchley Park during World War II, are planned.

"Many of the events have an academic focus," says Barry Cooper, "but we are also trying to stretch the public’s knowledge of Alan Turing’s history and work."

In London, the Science Museum, which has never previously featured an exhibition on Turing, will host "An Olympian Mind: Alan Turing and the Dawn of Digital Computing, 1936–1954." "I hope people will realize Turing was an important founder of computer science," says Graham-Cumming, "and think of him as one of the great Britons."

"If the centenary year increases awareness that there is science in computing, that will be a fine thing," says Samson Abramsky, professor of computing at the University of Oxford and a member of the Turing Centenary Advisory Committee. "Turing has a special status for two reasons. Scientifically, he is one of the major founding fathers of the science of computation. His contributions spanning his work in Princeton and Cambridge in the 1930s, at Bletchley Park during the war, and at the National Physical Laboratory and Manchester University in the 1940s and 1950s, have been a major influence on the theory and practice of computation today. Still more, the human aspects of his life, such as his work at Bletchley Park, his prosecution for homosexuality, his presumed suicide and early death, have brought him into the cultural sphere and made him an iconic figure."

Iconic status, at least on a geeky level, might not be too far away for Alan Turing. A Hollywood feature film on his life is in the works.

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