In the Shadow of Apple

November 22, 2010

Torah Kachur

The Apple-1 up for auction at Christie's tomorrow has certainly caused a few wet dreams from hardcore nerds hoping to get a slice of the bidding action.  But while the Apple-1 is getting a lot of well-deserved attention, there is much more to the auction than just an old computer.  Yes, there are a bunch of papers too.  Pieces of paper worth about $500,000.  I'd probably accidentally use them as a coaster.


        Torah Kachur Science in Seconds On Computable Numbers Alan Turing


These pieces of paper are the Max Newman collection of Alan Turing, offprints which include his famous work "On Computable Numbers".  By famous, we mean that a few really smart people have said they're super duper important.  Alan Turing (1912-1954) was a seriously brilliant dude: he founded the Artificial Intelligence movement, devised the mathematical principles that drive all of modern computing and single handedly defeated the Germans in WWII (okay the last one is a slight exaggeration).  He wasn't a double agent in the bunker with Hitler, but Turing's work at Bletchley Park eventually broke the German master coding machine, the Enigma, which shortened the war by years and save countless lives.  A working Enigma machine is the lot before the Turing collection in the auction, just in case you wanted to balance your collection, and have $50,000 to spare.


          Torah Kachur Science in Seconds Alan Turing Max Newman Christie's auction On Computable Numbers


So why isn't Turing's name in the camp of famous scientists like Newton, Einstein, Kachur?  Alan Turing was gay. Not a big deal now, but in Britain in the 1940's they weren't so keen on homosexuality. In fact, it was illegal and they busted young Alan.  To avoid prison, he was subjected to estrogen injections to 'curb' his impulses.  His sexuality made him an outsider and was amplified by the secrecy surrounding the code-breakers at Bletchely.  Not only was Alan Turing hiding his sexuality, the British government was hiding him from the enemies. 


For his entire and short life, he stayed true to his vision to theorize what computers could do, and was so forward thinking that some of his passions are still not being realized today - that computers can one day mimic and surpass the power of the human mind.  Will Alan Turing's vision be accomplished?  One day, we may be able to mimic the brain of a human - someone like Kim Kardashian (oh wait, my Atari could do that), but it will probably never have the computing power and vision of a true genius.



There is a growing movement to honor the Turing legacy by moving the entire collection to Bletchley Park; now a musem dedicated to one of the most impressive congregations of computing genius the world has ever seen - the code-breakers.  Alan Turing committed suicide in 1954 by eating a cyanide-laced apple.  Geek Alert! - some even say that the Mac logo is a shout-out to the dude that started it all.  It isn't. But, sigh... a geek can dream.  



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