Lectures, play are tributes to Turing

Tributes to Turing include lectures and a play
Tributes to Turing include lectures and a play

Until recently, perhaps the most noticeable tribute on campus to computer genius Alan Turing was the gargoyle high on one side of Deschutes Hall. That’s changing.

Lectures and a play scheduled in the coming weeks provide fresh attention to a man deemed by Time magazine to be one of the "100 Most Important People of the 20th Century." The events, which recognize 2012 as the 100th anniversary of Turing’s birth, are inspired by the departments of Computer and information Science, Math and Theatre Arts.

Described as a mathematical genius and the father of computer science, Turing, of Great Britain, played a major role in winning World War II by breaking the complex German code called Enigma. He was also the first person to conceive and describe computers. After the war, however, he was persecuted for being homosexual and his death at 41 was ruled a suicide.

Upcoming events that recognize Turing’s contributions and explore his life include:

  • A free, public lecture on the significance of Turing’s work as a philosopher and thinker at 3:30 p.m. May 23 in Deschutes 220. Christof Teuscher, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Portland State University, will present “Turing's Connectionism: A Modern Perspective,” introducing Turing's belief that machines could learn to show intelligent behavior, his original neural networks, extensions to them and relating this body of work to contemporary work on random Boolean networks, nano- and molecular electronics and computability theory.
  • A free, public lecture by mathematician and logician Martin Davis of UC-Berkeley at 7 p.m. May 28 in 110 Law Center. Davis, professor emeritus, Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, will give a talk in the CIS department’s Distinguished Lecture Series entitled “Alan Turing's Computers and Our Computers,” telling the story of Turing's rich, eventful and ultimately tragic life, and explaining some of Turing's key contributions to computer science. Davis is renowned for his contributions to logic and computability and he is the author of several widely-acclaimed books, including "The Universal Computer: the Road from Leibniz to Turing." He is a fellow of the American Mathematical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and he is a Guggenheim Fellow. Davis has also served as a consultant for IBM Research Laboratories, Rand Corporation, Bell Labs and Microsoft Corporation.
  • “Breaking the Code,” a play based on the book, “Alan Turing, The Enigma,” running May 30, 31, June 1, 6, 7 and 8 at 8 p.m., and June 9 at 2 p.m., in Hope Theatre on the UO campus. This biographical drama covers Turing’s role in winning World War II, breaking the complex German code called Enigma – and breaking the taboo against homosexuality. This play is about who he was, what happened to him and why.

There was also a lecture earlier this month on the Germans’ code-making machine, Enigma, and an exhibit at the Knight Library entitled “Alan Turing—the Founder of Computer Science,” which ran from February through April.

One of Turing’s greatest champions at the UO is Eugene Luks, professor emeritus and head of the Department of Computer and Information Science.

Luks said that despite his contributions, Turing seems to have dwelled in relative obscurity, at least among campus populations. But “Churchill’s secret weapon” was the builder of some of the world’s first computers, Luks said, and the anniversary of Turing’s birth provided him with fresh incentive to see the computer genius appropriately honored.

“Turing’s work as the father of computer science was well before anybody even thought of computer science,” Luks said. “He was certainly one of the great scientific minds of the century.”

In his talks with other Turing enthusiasts, one of Luks’ first stops was the theater department, where he presented the idea of the play to theater instructor Joseph Gilg. Gilg said the play has been on his “To Do” list for some time.

“It presents the story of a relative unknown who was very influential in the history of the twentieth century and the development of our modern society and who showed enormous courage in the face of an intolerant society,” Gilg said. “The history of the times and Turing’s role in it will appeal to many; his homosexuality and the intolerance of that lifestyle mid-twentieth century will also resonate with people today.”

The crux of the play, Gilg said, is an exploration of societal values in the mid-twentieth century, when "people were unable to reconcile that someone was, on one hand, a hero and on the other hand, a homosexual."

- by Matt Cooper, UO Office of Strategic Communications