“A 21st Century Man in the 1950s”: How Alan Turing’s contribution is now known by schoolchildren


  • Author: Statistics Views
  • Date: 21 Dec 2012
  • Copyright: Photograph copyright of Statistics Views.

As 2012, Alan Turing Year draws to a close, further to earlier tributes in the year, Wiley pays a final tribute to the mathematician whose world-changing achievements were recognised too late. Statistics Views interviews Dr James Grime, Enigma Project Officer based at the University of Cambridge, who talks about touring schools with the Enigma machine for which he generously provided a demonstration, Turing’s contribution to statistics and how his own career started off thanks to Johnny Ball.

Demonstration of a surviving Enigma machine

For more resources celebrating the Alan Turing Year, please visit here.

thumbnail image: “A 21st Century Man in the 1950s”: How Alan Turing’s contribution is now known by schoolchildren

Due to post-war secrecy, Turing’s contribution was not known in his lifetime and his life ended very tragically as he struggled to live in a society where being gay was then illegal. He was a man ahead of his time and to me, living in the wrong time in a way, but if he hadn’t lived when he did, then he would not have made the contribution that he did, and it would be fair play to say that World War II would have continued much longer. If you could go back in time and meet him, what would you say?

What you say is correct. I have heard him described rather brilliantly and probably truthfully as “a 21st century man in the 1950s”. His social attitude and mathematical achievements were both easily 50 years ahead. He was ahead of the curve. If I had met him, I would have encouraged him to keep going but to also keep quiet when he was arrested. Without him though, we may have struggled to have broken the Enigma code. If we had not broken the Enigma code, the war would have dragged on. The most dramatic and terrifying outcome could have been that the US would not have dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki but on Berlin instead. When you start to think about that, it is absolutely chilling. It’s fair to say it as the war was dragging on and a quick end was wanted. Imagine that?

Video interview with James Grime

Final thoughts

Do you have any advice for students considering a university degree in statistics or mathematics?

My advice would be to read around what you’re being given at school. At school, maths is taught very directly and you need to read outside that - popular science books like works by Simon Singh and popular TV, like Horizon. In order to have a better understanding how maths can be useful, expose yourself to these different ideas and inspire yourself.

What do you think the most important recent developments in the field have been? What do you think will be the most exciting and productive areas of research in mathematics and statistics during the next few years?

Mathematics is advancing all the time, which surprises some people. Some people are surprised by that as we still using theorems like Pythagoras but such theorems will remain true forever. Surely all the maths has been done, surely there is nothing left to do? It’s not true, you can go deeper. We use modern maths and science today and work with cutting edge technology. Sat navs, internet and mobile phones use mathematical ideas to make them work.

It is lots of baby steps moving forwards and mathematicians work together around the world and slowly, new ideas come out all the time, but it’s not really a subject area for major developments.

Have do you think the International Year of Statistics will benefit the discipline and the public’s understanding of mathematics and statistics? Does the Millennium Maths Project have any plans for this celebration?

The Departments of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Cambridge and the Millennium Maths Project will be working together for the International YSar of Statistics. I’m looking forward to it and hope to be involved myself – to improve the public’s understanding of statistics, risk and chance. It can only be a good thing if our message gets across because statistics and probability are areas that everyone should be familiar with and be used by everyone every day.

Are there people or events that have been influential in your career?

I didn’t know about the great mathematicians, Newton, etc. It’s been the people who have inspired me the other ways like Johnny Ball. My teachers at school encouraged me as I did not realise I was good at maths until I was about 14 or 15. My teacher told me to do maths at A level and did not leave me any choice, so I have him to thank for that!

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Published features on StatisticsViews.com are checked for statistical accuracy by a panel from the European Network for Business and Industrial Statistics (ENBIS)   to whom Wiley and StatisticsViews.com express their gratitude. This panel are: Ron Kenett, David Steinberg, Shirley Coleman, Irena Ograjenšek, Fabrizio Ruggeri, Rainer Göb, Philippe Castagliola, Xavier Tort-Martorell, Bart De Ketelaere, Antonio Pievatolo, Martina Vandebroek, Lance Mitchell, Gilbert Saporta, Helmut Waldl and Stelios Psarakis.