Dinesh AyyappanComment

Radiolab on Alan Turing

Dinesh AyyappanComment
I'm growing very fond of podcasts. I love listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson (StarTalk Radio) or Ira Glass (This American Life) as I'm waiting for a bus or walking around campus. Sometimes people give me confused looks when I break out into laughter while wearing my headphones. I guess they don't listen to funny things.

Today, I was walking to a meeting in the library and I decided to put on a short episode from Radiolab. It was 23 minutes long - just a bit more than my walk. "The Turing Problem", from March 2012. I downloaded it because I liked Alan Turing. His is a well-known name on this campus for his work in computing, but I had also heard that the world didn't treat him very well.

You can find this bench on our campus

From the podcast, I learned that two things were certain to Turing from a young age: that he loved math, and that he was gay. The second was illegal in the UK, for which he eventually got prosecuted in 1952 (age 40) and sentenced to crude chemical castration. This was, by the way, after leading anti-German codebreaking initiatives and cracking the Enigma machine in World War II. Two years later, he laced an apple with cyanide as his last meal.


Beyond this ridiculous injustice, two parts of the episode stuck out to me, both about the way he lived.

The first was about a trait common to a certain breed of academics:

5:18 - ... he looks like he's not actually there. He looks like he's - like a lot of mathematicians - like he lives simultaneously in two different worlds. 

What a peculiar existence. A modern Don Quixote.


This next part was just beautiful to listen to. I had almost arrived at the library, so I slowed my gait to a snail's pace and played it over and over.

15:05 - Turing is the first to say, 'It's not just that I want to build a machine that can think, it's that we are machines that think.'
... And this isn't a dark moment for him. It's a moment of acceptance, but this time, it's not about math or science; it's about something bigger. It's about the nature of the universe...
Not only did Turing feel like he himself was kind of a machine, he felt a kinship with all of the thinking machines that would ever be manufactured in the future, all those mechanical minds. 


I was late to my meeting.