Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Turing remembered

Today would have been Alan Turing's 92nd birthday, something of a moot point considering he killed himself just over 50 years ago. But he's one of my heroes, so here's a raised glass and a thank you to one of the brightest humans of the modern era, someone who knew that beauty is a necessary condition of truth - the closer you get to the right answer, the more elegant the equations become.

Einstein (whose name you know because he had better PR than Turing) is remembered for this same thing... distilling dozens of absurdly complex equations into the 'simple' E=mc2, which despite its simplicity actually said more than all of the other equations combined. Turing's genius was no less lacking in elegance, intuition, and the belief that the truth is something beautiful... but his work was classified, and the problems he distilled the essence out of were so fantastically complex that his amazing elegant versions of the larger equations still don't lend themselves to bumper-sticker sized short-form versions.

Richard Feynman tops my list of science heroes (which Einstein isn't even on), and he had a couple of relevant things to say... when he received his Nobel Prize at a young age (for work we are *still* only just recognizing the genius of, stuff that moved all of quantum physics to a solid footing from the realms of almost hallucinogenic interpretation that were coming from Einstein, Schroedinger, Bohr, and friends), he was asked by a journalist to say in two minutes what he had done that was deserving of the prize. Feynman replied "listen buddy, if I could describe it in two minutes it wouldn't be worth a Nobel Prize". Later in his career, however, this occured:

Feynman immensely enjoyed the challenge of reducing complex ideas so that they could be presented to students, and used that as a measure to determine whether something was really understood. Feynman was once asked by a fellow faculty member to explain why spin ½ particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics. He set off to prepare a freshman lecture on the subject. However, a few days later, he returned and said, "You know, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don’t understand it."

This sort of insight is rare and valuable... and it pervaded Turing's work, his quest for beauty and truth, and his belief that beauty and truth are the same thing.

Peace be upon you, Alan.



Blogger krishna said...

Thanks for this informative article about a little known genius. Human society goes through a cycle of beliefs like a seesaw. At on point, it was not fashionable to be a Jew. Society made up for that much later. Today, most societies do not frown (though, attitudes are still ambiguous) on homosexuality, trying in a way to compensate for the prejudices of yesteryears. Poor Alan Turing happened to be in a wrong place at a wrong time. Your article took me to the and the fascinating world of computing. Thank you once again for that! Your blog is like a gold mine of knowledge; it’s a window to the world that I ignored for too long.
Sometimes I feel that I am trespassing into your private world. Do you feel that my presence here is an intrusion into your solitude? Do let me know. I would not mind being an Ekalavya (Your knowledge about India is extensive and I presume you know who he was. Otherwise, I am only too willing to tell you his story.)
Have a nice day!

Blogger Foobario said...

>Do you feel that my presence here is an intrusion into your solitude?

Oh, most definitely not. It's nice to have visitors, and your comments give me another point of view with which to look at the things I am interested in. It's good to get feedback... before I enabled comments, all I really got was hate mail reacting to my political posts, so the fact that you are kind as well as insightful is very appreciated.

As for Ekalavya, I'm no Drona; please keep your thumb on your hand... at least that way you'll be able to continue typing :)
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