Sunday, 28 November 2010

Newman and Turing under the hammer

Christies' auction of computing memorabilia last week included one lot with a strong Manchester connection: Max Newman's annotated collection of Alan Turing's papers. Newman was one of my predecessors as Head of Mathematics at Manchester (on the Owens side) and we called our new building the Alan Turing Building, so both carry some personal resonance. The Newman papers did not make their reserve price (though the bidding went to £240,000) so there is still a chance that they may end up at either the Rylands Library in Manchester or in Bletchley Park.

Newman (on the left here) was a topologist, but his greatest achievement was probably his codebreaking work during the Second World War and the development of Manchester mathematics -- he was a mentor of Turing and instrumental in bringing him to Manchester after the war.

 Turing was, well, Turing! Obviously a very difficult man, but equally an extraordinarily gifted mathematician. In his doctoral thesis he (re)proved the law of large numbers, he was the central figure in the code-breaking activity during the Second World War, where he developed the electronic proto-computers. He continued to work on computers in Manchester after the war. His work on fundamental mathematics (the universal machine (Turing machine) and pattern formation in biology  was also ground-breaking. Persecution for homosexuality led to his
suicide in 1954. The 100th anniversary of his birth will be celebrated next year.

Here are three Turing-related anecdotes (except for the last, I cannot vouch for their accuracy).

1. The symbol of Apple Computers (an apple with a bite removed) is a reference to Turing, who committed suicide by biting an apple injected with cyanide.

2. Some computer scientists in Manchester believe that Turing would have put progress in computing back by twenty years due to his obstinate disdain for higher level computer languages.

3. The naming of the Alan Turing Building in Manchester came about almost by accident. Because it houses both mathematics and astronomy the original idea had been to give the building a name (or failing that, two names) connected with both disciplines and with Manchester. Newton was rejected by the University because of the lack of a strong Manchester connection and we had a list of worthy suggestions to put before the School Board. On a whim I added Turing to the list I wrote on the blackboard and got an overwhelmingly positive response. It required a bit more work to convince Physics that Turing was such an iconic figure that the addition of a worthy Manchester astronomer to the name would not work, but to their credit they agreed, and the Alan Turing Building was named. 

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