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13 October 2009

Alan Turing and Bletchley Park

When I was in the UK, I made a special visit to Bletchley Park. This was part-research for a percolating book-idea, but mostly I went there for wholesome nerdy awesome. And Bletchley delivered.

Ever since I read Neal Stevenson's Cryptonomicon I've wanted to visit Bletchley Park. It's an hour and a bit out of London, and there's a fascinating (and pleasingly lofi) series of museums and things there, including the National Museum of Computing. Also, Ian Fleming used to work there as a gopher, and obviously got some good spy-related ideas because he ended up writing some books that became quite popular.

I meant it when I said lo-fi

Bletchley Park was a code-breaking centre during WW2. It was where a very intelligent man called Alan Turing broke the Enigma Machine - a contraption for encoding messages used by the Germans. It looks like this:

Working at Bletchley Park involved lots of TOP SECRET things, and you couldn't get in or out without a special pass. There were also lots of women who worked there, because working on code-breaking and other surveillancey things was a good way for women to be involved in the war without having to put on special pants and actually go and kill people. And some of those women had kids who had to go to school. So even the kids needed the special pass to get in and out of the Park. These kids were the youngest people ever to sign the Official Secrets Act.

So let's talk about Alan Turing. The good news is that he invented something (called a Turing machine) that ended up evolving into the machine I'm typing this on right now. His use of electronic calculation and algorithming was what enabled the British to break the Enigma machine.

Time Magazine declared Turing as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century, and said: "the fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine."

Now here's the bad news. Alan Turing was gay (that bit wasn't the bad news, it's coming next). And during his lifetime, homosexuality was illegal and thought of as a mental illness. Turing was prosecuted in 1952. He had a choice between going to jail or taking female hormone treatment to "cure" him. His security clearance was removed and he was no longer permitted to work for the government. In 1954 he killed himself by eating an apple laced with cyanide.

BUT, on September 10 2009, after a recent petition endorsed by Richard Dawkins and Ian McEwan, the British government officially apologised to Turing. Here's what Gordon Brown said:
While Mr Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him... So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better. (full statement here)
Which is awesome and encouraging and only 55 years overdue.

This was from a totally awesome exhibit titled PIGEONS IN WAR. Did you know some pigeons got bravery medals?

Here are some Real Live Boffins working on a Very Old Computer.

And more good news - for the first time ever, Bletchley Park is going to receive National Lottery Funding, so it won't have to just survive on donations any more. Hurrah!

Anyway, I totally recommend a visit. And if you want to read more, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is a great read that blends all sorts of computery code-breakingly nerdery into one awesome novel.

08 October 2009

Three things you might not have known about SLOTHS

1. There are two kinds of sloth, the Two-toed Sloth and the Three-toed Sloth. The Two-toed sloth, rather confusingly, has three toes (but two fingers). The two kinds pretty much look the same, do the same things and live in the same places.

2. The sloth is the only animal in the world to not have seven cervical (or neck) vertebrae (apart from manatees). BUT the Two-toed and Three-toed sloths have a DIFFERENT number of vertebrae. The Two-toed has six and the Three-toed has NINE.

3. This crazy vertebrae inconsistency is because the Two- and Three-toed sloths do not have a shared ancestor until you go back 40 MILLION YEARS. They are a brilliant example of convergent evolution, where critters look the same and do the same things, because they've been surviving next to each other in the same environment for a very long time.

06 October 2009

The E-word

I'm currently reading Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth. And it's awesome. For those of you who get offended or irritated by Dawkins' attitude towards religion*, fear not! He barely mentions it**.

The book instead is a fascinating, straightforward and entertaining explanation of evolution. And I have to say I'm confused. Not by the evolution thing, but by the people who say they "don't believe in it". Because, well, here:

1. Dog breeders select dogs that carry desired traits to mate and produce puppies. Like a ridge on a Rhodesian Ridgeback, or a long body and teeny legs on a dachshund***. The parents pass these traits on to their puppies. And over time, the desired traits become more pronounced. Here are three pictures of a dachshund - the first from the 1800s, the second from 1915, the third a contemporary dog. This is what we call artificial selection.

2. This happens in nature, too. Peahens are attracted to peacocks with fancy bright plumage - it shows that they're healthy and strong. So the peacocks with the brightest, fanciest plumage are more likely to be chosen as a mate, will mate more times, have more offspring, and will pass their traits onto those offspring. This process is sexual selection.

3. And just one step further on, traits develop and endure without a breeder or potential mate actually choosing them. The critter that has the longest legs, the best eyesight, the most effective camouflage, will survive longer, produce more offspring and pass on those traits. This is called natural selection.

So what's evolution? Evolution is the name we give to random mutations in the gene pool. So for every giraffe that's born with a longer neck, there's one born with a twisted spine, or a stumpy tongue, or a slightly different coloured hide, or an infinite number of other random mutations. And some of these random mutations make no difference at all. Some make it harder for that giraffe to survive - the twisted-spine giraffe might not live as long as one with a straight spine. And the long-necked giraffe might live longer and be healthier because it can reach higher branches than other giraffes, with fresh new leaves. And because that giraffe is healthier and lives longer, it has more opportunities to mate and pass on its long neck to offspring.

So what confuses me is... how can people deny evolution? Being able to observe evolution and natural selection working together is fascinating and awesome and utterly beautiful. And while I personally am not religious, I don't particularly see how what I just said above necessarily excludes the existence of God. Maybe the existence of the Ark...

'Oh,' they say, 'but it's just a theory.'

It is. But there are two definitions of theory. One means 'hypothesis proposed as an explanation'. The other means 'A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation of experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles or causes of something known or observed'.

It is not the job of scientists to prove things. That is the job of mathematicians. A scientist's job is to try really really hard to disprove something, and fail. They have failed to disprove the theory of evolution. If evolution is just a theory, then so is gravity. And the theory that the sun is bigger than the moon. And the theory that the planets orbit the sun.

Anyway. I haven't actually finished the book yet. I'm just finding it fascinating and wanted to share.

*although to be honest I think he's vastly misrepresented in the press.

**apart from a rather amusing story about people trying to get around the no-meat-only-fish-on-Fridays rule. One community decided it was okay to eat a critter that was like a giant swimming hamster, because it swam, so it must be a fish. The French Catholics were even more sneaky - they lowered a leg of lamb into a well and then "fished" it out again, making it alright to eat.

***often to the detriment of the animal's health. Did anyone else see that documentary? Horrifying.

05 October 2009

Analyse THAT

Last night I dreamt that the Nazis built a huge 40-storey circus on the steps of Capitol Hill in Washington. Made from bluestone. Then President Bartlet and CJ, under cover of night, climbed up the outside bluestone circus, where the President set a chair on fire with his cigarette and then distracted the Nazis by pretending to be God. Allowing CJ to throw a snake at Hitler and kill him.