Saturday, January 28, 2012

Science Saturday: Britain's Greatest Codebreaker

Another selection from DocumentaryHeaven, this time about Alan Turing. In my first three semesters at college, I read his "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" paper three times, for three different classes. What struck me each time was not only the originality of his thought, but the clarity of his writing; it made enough of an impact on me that I went on to write my philosophy undergraduate thesis on the ethics of artificial intelligence, all the way at the opposite end of my academic career. It's unsurprising, then, that I knew a lot about his legacy before I watched, though not a lot about his personal life: a genius who contributed to the Allied war effort who was years later persecuted for his homosexuality and, as a result, took his own life. Honestly I kind of wish I hadn't watched this, because it's just so tremendously depressing and heartbreaking to learn everything I didn't know about him.

The good: This is a nice, long, juicy selection (a full hour), and extensive research was involved.  There's loads of interviews with people who knew or worked with Turing, as well as medical, biographical, and computer science experts. It switches between present-day interviews, archival footage, and dramatic reenactments quite seamlessly.

The bad: Another BBC documentary that likes to crank up the dramatic music and the pathos. Is that the trend now?  I've seen it in so many of the BBC's documentaries online, I'm just beginning to assume that  it's par-for-the-course documentary-making anymore. Also, I wish they had made it longer and included more of the substance of his thoughts and writings. At one point they present a formula he developed to generate the patterns on animals' coats, and rather than explain how it works or even what each variable represents, they just leave it floating up there on screen while people talk about how genius it is.

One interesting fact: Spoiler alert, somewhat. As I mentioned before, Turing eventually killed himself as a result of his conviction of Gross Indecency and subsequent chemical castration. That much I knew beforehand. What I never knew about the charges and the conviction was that the police were first made aware of his homosexuality because he went to them after his apartment had been burgled by a young man he had taken home a few weeks prior. Turing contacted the police and explained what had happened, including the part about the apartment being cased by the young man he had slept with.  In his utter naivete, Turing assumed the police would do what most of us consider the right thing and deal with the theft (which was not much, but included some objects of sentimental value to Turing). Instead, they cracked down on his sexuality like a vice squad.  The rest is history.

Would recommend?: Very strongly, Turing was a genius who deserved more credit than he ever got in his day, and almost all of our modern technology is due to his insights. The video quality on this one is excellent as well: one uploaded clip instead of a schizophrenic playlist. It's just not a good one to watch when you're already depressed, is all.

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