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Movie Review - The Codebreaker - The Achievements of Alan Turing (2011)

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Alan Turing was not recognized for his achievements in his lifetime.  Instead, he was vilified by the British government because of his lifestyle.  Alan’s contributions to today’s technology cannot be overstated.  He was perhaps the greatest scientist of the 20th century.

                                       

Statue of Alan Turing

                                       Statue of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park - Wikimedia

Introduction

The TV movie entitled “The Codebreaker” includes stories by people who actually knew Alan Turing - colleagues from Bletchley Park, a woman he was once engaged to, his nephew Dermot Turing, and Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, Inc. The film tells the story of Alan Turing from his early days as a student at the Sherborne School in Dorset, England.  His teachers at Dorset never recognized that they had a mathematical genius in their midst.  Alan was a bit of a loner who did not thrive in social situations, although he was athletic.  His sport was running which is a solitary sport. 

Alan’s Friend at Sherborne

Alan had one great friend at Sherborne, a boy named Christopher Morcom.  They only saw each other on Wednesdays when they both happened to be in the library.  Alan idolized Morcom and his influence on Alan was absolutely enormous, both academically and emotionally.  They were more than pals; they had a great intimacy, albeit an innocent one.

Alan and Chris Morcom both planned to apply for a scholarship to Cambridge.  Sadly, Chris died in 1930 after being in poor health for most of his life.  He had tuberculosis.  Alan was bowled over; when he learned of Chris’ death, the world changed for him.  He did, however, get a scholarship to enter King’s College in Cambridge.

                                           

Enigma Machine

                                                                Enigma Machine - Wikimedia

Psychiatric Sessions with Dr. Greenbaum

“The Codebreaker” reveals Alan’s innermost thoughts and feelings through his sessions with Dr. Franz Greenbaum, a psychiatrist, who treated Alan, when he was an adult, for six months in 1950.  Greenbaum was a German Jew who had fled with his family to England just before World War II.  Alan became, not just a patient to Greenbaum, but a friend.  He was part of the family.  Greenbaum’s wife explained that Alan would come to the house in raggedy clothes which looked like they came out of a rag bag.  Still, they valued his friendship and knew that he was a brilliant man.

Alan’s Paper at Cambridge on Computers

Alan spoke to Greenbaum about his friendship with Chris Morcom, and about his years at Cambridge.  When he was there in 1936, he had written a significant paper entitled “On Computable Numbers” which introduced the idea of a computer.  At that time, the definition of the word computer was a person who computed numbers.  While working on a math problem, Alan constructed what he called the universal machine.  It changed the way people thought about computation in a fundamental way.  The basis of all computers, he noted, is the fact that anything can be written as 1’s and 0’s.  Today, the inside of a Smartphone has a chip and a processor, exactly as Alan had described.  The digital age had begun.

                                     

Bletchley Park

                                                           Bletchley Park - Wikimedia

Bletchley Park

In 1939, Alan was recruited to be part of a team at Bletchley Park that would attempt to break the German codes.  An eccentric bunch of brilliant people from various walks of life were hired.  It was a highly secret effort.  Alan was the main architect of this codebreaking effort.  He was a genius.  At Bletchley, however, he was just regarded as very clever.

The German Enigma Machine

The Germans coded their messages using an Enigma Machine.  They believed that the machine was completely unbreakable.  Alan took a look at it and said “I can break that.”

England depended upon their boats to get vital supplies to them.  U-Boats were everywhere.  They had to break the U-Boat code.  The codebreakers at Bletchley started by attacking with “cribs.”  A crib was a word that would occur often in a German message, such as the word “vetter” meaning weather.  The crib helped to guess the German text.

Alan decided that if a machine coded the messages, they also needed to build a machine to break the code.  The machine they constructed was called “The Bombe.”  They explored the relationships between the cybertext and the crib in the Enigma configurations.  The Bombe could do it in a couple of minutes.  Within two years, they were able to read most of the German messages.  

                                              

Alan Turing Plaque

                                                Plaque in Cheshire, England - Wikimedia

Enigma is Broken

The extra level of complexity is what Turing did.  The code used by the German navy had more permutations, or levels of complexity.  He realized that you could use mathematics initially, and then use The Bombe.  He sat around with a pencil and paper and was able to work it out.  They were able to break the code of messages from the German High Command to the U-Boats.  There would not have been a D-Day had they not cracked Enigma.  Alan’s contribution to the war effort cannot be overstated.

Alan’s Proposal of Marriage

When Dr. Greenbaum asked Alan to pay attention to his dreams, Alan related a dream to him one day.  It was about a woman named Joan Clarke with whom he worked at Bletchley.  Joan was a rarity, a mathematician who was paid less because she was a woman.  They went to the pictures and had a lot of laughs together.  They shared an interest in how mathematics expresses itself in nature.  He proposed marriage to Joan and she said “yes.” Alan admitted to Joan that he fancied men, but it did not seem to bother her.  Joan Clarke was interviewed for this film and stated that Alan’s confession worried her a bit.  She knew it was something that was permanent, but they carried on.  Alan finally realized that it would not work.  He had thought that their wonderful conversations would be enough for them.  He called if off, even though he knew it would hurt her.  They never married.

Manchester University

In 1948, Alan joined the Math Department at Manchester University.  Computers had only just been invented.  The prototype was built in Manchester.  Alan himself had designed one of the first computers.  What he had written in his paper at Cambridge in 1936 had become a reality.  Steve Wozniak, in his interview for the film, stated that Alan Turing was the one who came up with everything that computers do today.  He started something that was genuinely new.

All modern computing grew from what Alan Turing visualized.  His ideas changed the world.  He was truly the greatest mathematician of his time.  He had thoughts that nobody else was having.

                                                       

Steve Wozniak

                                            Steve Wozniak, Co-Founder of Apple,Inc.                                                                                                                               Wikimedia                   

Alan Turing’s Lifestyle

The film “The Codebreaker” has a lengthy session with Dr. Greenbaum and Alan discussing his problems with the British government and police authorities for his alternative lifestyle, which will not be examined in this review.

Alan Turing took his own life on June 8, 1954 when he was 41 years old.  It is believed that computer science would have advanced faster and would have been more creative had Alan Turing lived to further his work.  The British government apologized in 2009 for the way he had been treated.

Another film, “The Imitation Game,” was released in 2014, which also relates the accomplishments of Alan Turing.  It was a box office hit.

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Comments

Jan 21, 2016 3:21pm
HLesley
I recently watched "The Imitation Game" and wasn't aware there was an earlier version of Turing's story. If you get a chance, you might like to watch the 2014 film for comparison. I thought it was an excellent movie.
Jan 21, 2016 6:33pm
kellapat
I did see "The Imitation Game" also. I have been intrigued with Bletchley Park and the Enigma. Such an interesting story.
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