Tag Archive: Alan Turing


Quantum mechanics for dummies

So I’ve been reading Alan Turing’s biography by Andrew Hodges and find myself glued to the pages. Sadly, I suck balls at math (no pun intended). I truly do. It’s the subject that ruined my otherwise perfect GPA in high school. I’ve been trying to grasp some of the concepts mentioned in the book, and quantum mechanics is one of them. This is fascinating! I never saw that before. I mean I heard the words thrown around but I never understood what it meant. I guess I still don’t. I would love to go back to school and start all over and actually pay attention in physics, maths and chemistry. Anyway, there’s this thing on reddit, ‘explain it to me like I’m five years old’, and anyone who has ever done this properly will probably scream in protest, but it’s ok to dumb it down a bit to get across the idea to non-pros (hey, Stephen Hawking agrees!).

There seem to be a lot of people responding who overestimate the vocabulary of a five-year-old. Here’s my best shot at speaking to a kindergartner.

Physics is how we try to figure out what happens when we throw a rock at another rock. It’s pretty easy to see that throwing a small rock at a big rock is different from throwing a big rock at a small rock. One day, somebody got tired of playing around with big rocks and started using the smallest rocks he could find and throwing them at each other. These rocks were so small that you can’t see them with your eyes, you have to use other tools to know what they’re doing, kind of like when an ant bites you or a bee stings you, you can’t see what they did but you know they did something because it made your arm hurt. Even though they couldn’t see the rocks, they knew what was happening because the tools they made showed them, just like your arm tells you when you get stung/bitten.

So the next thing this guy did with his very tiny rocks was to launch them through a very thin hole at a sheet and see what happened when they came out of the other side. Most people would probably guess that tiny rocks that are shot through a tiny opening will make a tiny hole in the sheet. But that’s not what happened. The tiny rocks spread out once they went through the tiny hole and they wanted to go through the sheet more easily in some places than others. But this only happens when you use small enough pieces of rock. The big pieces of rock don’t act like that. We’re still trying to figure out why.

Some also posted this link to a video of the double slit experiment (which I found very helpful since I’m a visual learner):

The Imitation Game

Here just some random thoughts I can’t keep to myself about this movie. Contains spoilers.

Just a quick statement: Though I am not a mathematician, I’ve had this odd fascination with Turing and ciphers. E.g. I adore the ‘Cryptonomicon’ by Neal Stephenson, but for the most part I feel about the technicalities like William Gibson once said about computers in an interview: „My ignorance had allowed me to romanticize them.“* So I won’t go into criticizing the romantic depiction of ‘this is how science works’, others have done that.

I wasn’t expecting a scientifically or historically accurate movie at all. While there are tons of things you could say about inaccuracies, I don’t think it matters much because it’s not supposed to be an accurate documentary. It’s a story based on and inspired by Turing’s life which was truly remarkable. But the movie doesn’t really work so well as a story. I want to focus on two things that piqued me in particular: what I will call nerd tropes and the sexuality issue.**

Franchise audience pleasing

Let’s put Tywin Lannister and Sherlock Holmes in a room and see what happens. And yes, that scene is funny, but what does it achieve? Bringing together two actors who are so clearly known for previous roles. There doesn’t have to be a nod in their direction all the time, and in my opinion it damages the integrity for the performance of the characters at hand.

It could have helped if Turing wouldn’t have been portrayed as painfully shy and narcissistic at once – just pick one. I wouldn’t say that Cumberbatch can’t play a different character than Sherlock. He’s clearly too good an actor for that and his interpretation of Turing living somewhere on the scale of autism is at times convincing. But that interference breaks the integrity of the character in several scenes, not just the one with Charles Dance.

Nerd tropes

But why does the script not stick to that particular interpretation, but throws in all other types of ‘this is what we expect someone intelligent to do’-tropes in there? OCD („carrots and peas mustn’t touch“), arrogance („I’m a genius and I know it“), stuttering, isolation, mobbing victim, not eating („I don’t like sandwiches“… hello Sherlock), trying to tell a joke but failing („I don’t get why people never say what they really mean“… hello Sheldon). Another really good example for this is another Cumberbatch performance in ‘The last enemy’: Also a mathematical genius, also highly intelligent, also has quirks. In one of the opening scenes of the series the character, Stephen Ezzard, is seen frantically washing his hands on an airplane. The purpose of the scene is to establish his status as ‘that quirky guy’. OCD is never relevant to the plot, it can be turned off and on again at will (that would be so convenient in real life). It’s a best of nerd tropes without thinking about that many of these traits cancel each other out. It becomes annoying, and it makes all these characters kind of look the same. So, dear script writers, make a choice which quirks your genius has and stick with it, don’t just pile them all on. Next:

The gay thing

How does the movie deal with that? Some reviewers said could imagine two approaches:

There are two ways, I think, that one could go about making a story of Alan Turing and his key role in inventing the computer as a means of cracking a Nazi code during the Second World War. One way would be to go all-in on the psychological aspect, and take it for granted that Turing’s closeted homosexuality was haunting him and driving him in his quest to uncover the secrets of his nation’s enemies, thus making his eventual punishment by the British government for his “gross indecency” even more ironically cruel. The other would be to discard personal matters altogether, and make a purely process-driven story, in which Turing and his colleagues are nothing but the human vessels for acts of research and insight, and the act of breaking the code is itself the protagonist, with all the people reduced to the status of window dressing.

The actual Turing biopic that exists in the world, The Imitation Game, tries to combine these methods in a hybrid that does not work much at all. (http://antagonie.blogspot.de/2014/12/ever-read-cryptonomicon-you-should.html)

Combining these two approaches would have been possible, but I agree that they do not work together very well in this movie. Making the movie without adressing the ‘problem’** would not have been right because they’d get all kinds of shitstorms about that, and rightly so. It wouldn’t have been ok, it would have seemed like they tried to cover it up. Some people say you shouldn’t focus on Turings sexuality because his work was more important. In 2015 that might be a valid opinion, but mid-last-century that was not a option. Though the investigation of his suicide remains shrouded in myth, it was a horrible time to openly be anything but heteronormative and people fucked up his life badly. So it definitely needs to be dealt with in a biography.

But is it just me, or is the movie avoiding this? The flashbacks to the boy love are a bit like bad fan fiction: „Yes, I loved only once and then he died.“ And the romantic Christopher/Bombe naming thing never happened. Bit much, isn’t it? My point is: The movie puts the issue of portrayal of same-sex affection conveniently in the past and the ‘future’. When the issue comes up in the present storyline, it’s focused on marrying Joan and the „hmm I’m afraid I can’t deliver“-speech or on blackmailing (for dramatization and liberties taken with that Cairncross story-line see here). While everyone at Bletchley probably worked a lot and there was no time for office romances, it’s weird that neither of the timelines ever shows anything sexual. In 1951 (it was actually 1952) there is a shot of his unnamed lover sitting in the police station, and we hear the word penis spoken out loud, and that’s it.

Is it just a really clever statement of the implications of being gay in a time where you had to stay in the closet or be prosecuted that you never see anything physical? Or is it so as not to offend any homophobics in the cinema, because noone can be suffered to see men having sex on screen? It’s not supposed to be ‘Brokeback Mountain’, but still, it felt off to me.

In conclusion

Great theme and lots of capable actors not put to very good use.

On the plus side: It was a nice idea to make the main theme the Turing test. While all this constructed heroism around Turing is sort of over the top, it’s good to get a perspective at how crappy people who achieved tons when it mattered can be treated and cast off. Pardons issued decades later can’t make up for past injustice, but it’s a step in the right direction.

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* „On the most basic level, computers in my books are simply a metaphor for human memory: I’m interested in the hows and whys of memory, the ways it defines who and what we are, in how easily memory is subject to revision. When I was writing Neuromancer, it was wonderful to be able to tie a lot of these interests into the computer metaphor. It wasn’t until I could finally afford a computer of my own that I found out there’s a drive mechanism inside — this little thing that spins around. I’d been expecting an exotic crystalline thing, a cyberspace deck or something, and what I got was a little piece of a Victorian engine that made noises like a scratchy old record player. That noise took away some of the mystique for me; it made computers less sexy. My ignorance had allowed me to romanticize them.“

(Interview with Larry McCaffery in Storming the Reality Studio : A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction, Duke University Press (December 1991) http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/William_Gibson)

** Disclaimer: I use the words ‘problem’ and ‘issue’ not because I think homosexuality is a problem, but it is problematic insofar as some people unfortunately still think it is and the movie industry still has its own problems in dealing with their audience’s problems. Wow, I really used the word problem a lot in that sentence. Anyway, go LGBTOW.

Update: Congratulations to Graham Moore! Stay weird, stay different.

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