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Alan Turing's Life in a Print by Jin Wicked

a description by Andrew Hodges (2003) for the
Japan Times

For a guide to this website go to the Alan Turing Home Page




This was written as an article for the Japan Times, to accompany a feature about the Loebner Prize competition and the Turing Test. A slightly edited version appeared on 23 November 2003, and is on-line here.

I took the opportunity to comment on a work by the artist Jin Wicked.





Alan Turing comes to life in this fine print by the American artist Jin Wicked. Although she has clearly marked his dates, from 1912 to 1954, the iconography obviously suggests a mind which is struggling to reach further into time and space than this brief span allowed.

The theory behind the Turing Test is at the centre of this picture. The looping tape, inscribed with binary 0's and 1's, represents Turing's model of the computer which he formulated in 1936. Its spiralling away into space correctly shows the scope of Turing's theoretical work, which is about what any computer, however large or fast, could do. But its loop through the brain is also a correct picture of Turing's work: he was giving a fresh account of what the action of the mind.  The tape is being scanned by the mind's eye,  and that is why Turing's eyes are drawn turned inwards. The question it poses is whether the mind can do anything that the computer cannot. Is Turing himself a computer program, operating his pencil blindly? Or his his inner eye seeing something that the computer can never grasp?

Around that central image, Jin Wicked has crowded the space with the material world that defined Alan Turing's life. Behind that schoolboy pencil are the old stone cloisters of his schoolboy life, the rigid and declining British Empire of the 1920s. Sharp collars and old school tie almost throttle the brain. But that tie, its phallic tip awkwardly poking over the stone wall, is the only object which breaks out of the frame and refuses to fit in. This is a fair picture of his sexuality, in one way quite old-fashioned in the cultural base of the English Public School, yet turning into something very modern, insisting on an open identity which may well have been crucial in the background to his death in 1954. For those years were the most paranoid of the new American world order, and Alan Turing held in that brain some of the greatest state secrets of the age.

In the left hand lower corner is the Victorian machinery of the Empire, reflecting his mother's family background in engineering. On this base rise images of the electronics of the 1940s which allowed him to turn his idea of a computer into a practical design in 1945-6, and then took him to Manchester in 1948 to organise the first working computer. At the top left are the rotors of the German Enigma cipher machine, which, building on brilliant Polish work, Turing mastered in 1939-40, taking personal charge of the Atlantic U-boat problem.

Yet this image, the subject of daring naval captures and convoy battles, the cause of Turing's top-level visit to the United States in 1942, is given little attention and more prominence is given to the formulas appearing on five jigsaw-shaped panels. These reflect his central intellectual role in making codebreaking scientific. The formulas actually refer to the subject of 'complexity theory', which is one of the uses of Turing's theoretical work made after his death. The words 'time' and 'space' have a technical meaning in this theory, but also serve to suggest the fundamentals of the physical world in which Turing was always engaged. The galaxy at the top right suggests the astronomy of Turing's schoolboy life and also the cosmology of his last interests before his death ('Hyperboloids of wondrous light, rolling for aye through space and time' were amongst his last words). The giant sunflower head at the bottom right also depicts his elemental fascination with science: even as a young boy his mother saw him 'watching the daisies grow.' But it is also the technical subject of his own theory of mathematical biology which from 1950 to 1954 he pursued on the Manchester computer.

The petals are thrusting into where Turing's heart would be, and at the same time, Turing's arms are thrusting into physical space in a way that seems at odds with the picture of an academic mathematician. For a start, there are three of them, all muscular and all bare. These are the arms of a marathon runner, as Turing was (almost qualifying for the 1948 Olympics), and they are the arms of someone who could be infuriating to his friends, awkward and self-defeating. The two front arms present a confident unity of purpose, but the strange extra arm grasps awkwardly and back-handedly at a much more ambiguous symbol: the apple.

That apple — quite coincidentally chosen by Apple Inc. as an icon of nonconformity and discovery — is the apple that Alan Turing used as the icon of his death. It is Snow White's apple, dipped in the poison of the 1940s, and Jin Wicked has made this explicit by her large logo of the cyanide ion which killed him. But CN also stands for Computable Numbers  — the 1936 theoretical work which defined Turing's computer model.

The flower and the fruit show an innocent Eden of theoretical science, and pure mental concentration. But they also speak of Turing's inescapable urge for experience of the human world and the reality of human conflict.




See also my pages on the artwork of Sir Eduardo Paolozzi's Turing Collection.





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