Codebreaker - Alan Turing's life and legacy

Review

of an Exhibition

by Andrea Bandelli

Published on July 03, 2012, Modified on July 04, 2012

  • Description:

    Codebreaker is the aptly named new exhibition at the Science Museum about the life and legacy of Alan Turing, celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth.
    The name of the exhibition refers not only to Turing’s work on the Enigma machine, but also to the many other ways in which Turing “broke” the codes of science and society. This exhibition pays tribute to the life of Alan Turing with a well curated display of unique objects, and together with the interpretative text and media it builds a powerful and moving story.

    It is a biographical exhibition, but rather than proceeding chronologically it is divided into 5 sections that focus on the main themes of Turing’s scientific achievements: computing (with two sections, before and after Turing’s breakthroughs in the field); his work on the Enigma machine; artificial intelligence; and his work on biology and morphogenesis. Throughout the 5 sections the personal life of Alan Turing takes shape, and the exhibition does a great job in “weaving” key moments in Turing’s life with the impact they had in his thinking and scientific career. A sixth section contains 3 interactive exhibits to explain some principles of computing, although to me it felt somehow disconnected from the main body of the exhibition (see note 1).

    There are three entrances to the exhibition, which work very well since there is no specific order to explore the different sections. When I visited, the first objects I saw were the Pilot ACE computer, a wreck of an airplane and a bit further away, a model of a molecule. These three objects, put together, are a wonderful example of what good curation is about: they are like the canvas on which visitors start to paint their own story of the exhibition.

    The Pilot ACE (Automatic Computing Engine) was designed by Turing in 1945, and it took 5 years to be built. We learn that Turing left the project after 3 years however, frustrated by the delays, and that he moved to Manchester, where a few years later he will be prosecuted for his homosexuality and forced a treatment that will eventually lead to his suicide (see note 2).

    The Pilot ACE was one of the very first electronic computers, and was immediately put to use for groundbreaking research. Dorothy Hodgkin used it to understand the structure of vitamin B12; in 1959 she donated the model on display in the exhibition to the Science Museum. The Pilot ACE was also used for a crucial investigation involving the very first commercial jet airliner, the Comet. The part of the fuselage on display in the exhibition shows the cracks that developed around the windows during a fatal accident in 1954. After the accident, numerous tests were carried out which needed significant computing power, provided by the Pilot ACE. The results of the inquiry showed that square design of the windows was too fragile for the high pressure to which a jet airliner is subject to – and that is the reason why on today’s jets the windows are round.

    These three objects, which belong to the collections of the Science Museums, were never displayed together before: but now, facing each other, they tell the story of Turing’s visionary work on computers, his struggles with norms and conventions (one of the reasons of his frustrations with the Pilot ACE was the secrecy of his wartime work, which caused considerable delays with the construction of the computer), and how important that project has been for the advancement of science and technology.

    Although the Pilot ACE with its coloured tubes is a beautiful object, not many people could really understand how it worked. In 1950 a special simulator was built, to illustrate in a simplified manner how the machine functioned. It was displayed and explained to non-specialists in the library of the Royal Society in London, and is part of the exhibition now. Quite an example of science communication for the masses!

    Going further through the exhibition, we find the section on “computing before computers” – when in fact “computers” usually meant women sitting at mechanical machines doing repetitive calculations. On display is also a machine built in 1934 with the “Meccano” construction toy to solve differential equations, and the mechanical computers used in aircrafts during World War II to determine the best trajectory to drop the bombs. The contrast with the electronic computer we just saw is striking – and it becomes clear how revolutionary the idea of a “universal” computer was. It brought also radical changes in society, which continue to go on today.

    Alan Turing remains famous for breaking the code of the Enigma machine, the encryption system used by the German military during World War II. In the exhibition we find 3 of these machines – one belonging to the Science Museum, acquired in 1980 after long negotiations with the Government; one seized in 1942 in a German U-boat, a newer model considered unbreakable (until Turing broke this code as well); and a third one belonging to Mick Jagger, who used it in his 2001 movie production Enigma. Jagger lent the machine to the museum for this exhibition. A few other machines and tools used to decrypt the German military messages are also on display. What we fully appreciate in this part of the exhibition are the descriptions of what life was at Bletchley Park, the secret facility where Turing worked. It was intellectually, socially and sexually liberal, in contrast with the rest of Britain during war time. Several women worked there, and for many male researchers and academics this was the first time they worked together with women. In this environment Alan Turing made no secret of his homosexuality. Although for a brief time he was engaged with a woman colleague there, shortly after he told her about him being gay, and they ended their relationship. Turing was not afraid of going against social norms, when they were unjust and unfair. But Bletchley Park was a unique environment, as recalled by some of the people who worked there and who were interviewed for a video documentary produced by the Science Museum for this exhibition.

    The full extent of Turing’s openness about his homosexuality becomes clear in the section “A matter of life and death”, where the exhibition juxtaposes the work of Turing on biology and morphogenesis with his own tragic death. After his work on the Pilot ACE, Turing moved to Manchester where he pursued groundbreaking work linking mathematics, biology and chemistry. Manchester was a very conservative place then, and when Turing talked about his gay life with the police, he was convicted of “gross indecency” under the anti-homosexual legislation. He was given the choice of imprisonment or chemical castration, with a therapy of female hormones. The dramatic display of the estrogen pills and Turing’s death certificate tells us enough about the consequences of that senseless legislation, which ended the life and work of one of Britain’s most extraordinary thinkers.

    Alan Turing however believed that the spirit of a person would survive the death of the body. In 1930 (aged 18) he was deeply affected by the death of Christopher Morcom, his teenage (and unrequited) lover. The exhibition presents a series of letters and essays that Turing wrote to Morcom’s mother in which he describes not only his love for Christopher, but also the first concepts about the nature of thinking which will be fundamental for all the future developments of artificial intelligence. It is a powerful display which once again combines in a unique way the personal life of Turing with his scientific insights, and let us fully appreciate the extent of how important his thinking has been.

    Alan Turing died on 7 June 1954, aged 41. His work saved Great Britain from the war, and it largely shaped the way we live now in a world deeply affected by computers. This exhibition is not only a tribute to his life, but a wonderful example of how exhibitions can be powerful tools to keep us thinking and go forward for a just society. There’s no better way to describe the work of the curator and the team that developed this exhibition than with Turing’s own words: “I know I must put as much energy if not as much interest into my work as if he were alive, because this is what he would like me to do”.

    Notes

    1) The sixth section of the exhibition presents three interactive exhibits to show some of the principles of computing: looping (the repetition of certain commands, for instance looking up data from input devices); variables (handling of different data in the same way); and conditionals (decision steps based on certain circumstances). Although the content definitely fits into the subject of Turing’s work, I found these exhibits somehow disconnected from the main exhibition. Hands on exhibits can be a great way to explain certain concepts, and I’m sure part of the audience of the Science Museum will appreciate them. However “Codebreaker” is a powerful exhibition which brings real objects to life and exposes, in a deeply emotional way, their significance in understanding the work and life of Alan Turing. For me it was unnecessary to further explain these three computing principles, and these exhibits are in fact more like the germ of a whole new exhibition than an addition to the existing one.

    2) From the catalogue of the exhibition and a conversation with the curator I learned that the exhibition team worked closely with Age UK Camden’s “Opening Doors London” project, a group of older gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who informed the team about what it meant to be homosexuals in Britain in the 1950’s. Their conversations were instrumental for the team to understand the feelings, fears and pressure to conform to certain social norms, as well as to acquire the necessary confidence and knowledge to approach the life and legacy of Alan Turing. I found it a very good example of how museums actively involve the public in the development of their activities, acknowledging that the collaboration between museums and the public is essential to produce good exhibitions.

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