Science & Research

Movie highlights mathematician’s place in history

Science & Research Editor
Tuesday, February 10, 2015

This article is the first in an ongoing series, Science at the Cinema, that explores research and researchers portrayed in film.

“The Imitation Game,” nominated for eight Academy Awards, details the accomplishments and pitfalls of Alan Turing, a British mathematician, and his most notable creation — a code-breaking machine that shortened World War II by two years and is now recognized as the precursor to the modern computer. The film, a biopic of Turing, chronicles his path to breaking Germany’s secret code, Enigma. He accomplishes this feat with the help of his machine, which decoded messages sent between German officers and gave the Allies a military advantage.

Despite his patriotic and technological contributions, Turing faced persecution that led to an early death. When the British government discovered that Turing had engaged in sexual relations with another man — an act that was illegal in Britain at the time — he was given two options: imprisonment or chemical castration. He chose the latter, but ultimately killed himself at age 41.

Benedict Cumberbatch, the titular star of BBC’s “Sherlock,” plays yet another introverted British genius in ‘The Imitation Game,” only with digs in Bletchley Park instead of Baker Street. The acting owes much to Russell Crowe’s portrayal of John Forbes Nash in “A Beautiful Mind,” which pioneered the awkward mathematician as a movie trope.

Keira Knightley also delivers a nuanced performance as Turing’s fellow code-breaker, friend and potential love interest, Joan Clark. Unfortunately, Knightley is far better than the script, which boxes her in as the Watson to Turing’s Sherlock.

The real Alan Turing is a personal hero, said Sorin Istrail, professor of computational and mathematical science and computer science. Turing’s 1936 paper on “computable numbers” is the most important paper written in computer science, he added.

“Once you have a theory in place, scientists can look at concrete problems,” Istrail said. Compared to creating the theory, these concrete problems like sorting numbers are relatively simple, he added.

Though Istrail has read all of Turing’s work, he said he still learned something about Turing’s life from the film. In particular, Istrail said he learned more about Turing’s role as a code-breaker during World War II and his poor treatment by the British authorities.

To celebrate Alan Turing’s 100th birthday in June 2012, Istrail and Professor of Physics Leon Cooper co-wrote an article entitled “Mental Experience and the Turing Test: This Double Face is the Face of Mathematics.”

Their paper focuses on the Turing Test — a test in which a human asks two sets of questions and attempts to determine which answers come from the human and which come from the machine. Though the Turing Test is the source for the film’s title, the movie focused more on code-breaking than Turing’s mathematical papers.

In his own work, Cooper said he is interested in what happens inside the mind, specifically in neural systems.

“The Turing Test, as important as it is, evades the question” of how the mind works internally, Cooper said, pointing out the difference in his and Turing’s approaches to understanding complex systems. As for the film, Cooper said he will see it when it appears on Netflix.

Along with mathematician John von Neumann, Turing is considered the father of computer science. The Turing Award, considered the equivalent to a Nobel Prize in computer science, is named in Turing’s honor, Istrail said.

  • Guest

    Turing is really interesting, but this is a mediocre movie. I guess bringing more attention to his accomplishments is a good thing thought?