Archive for Alan Turing

Erasmus Minus

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Politics with tags , , on December 27, 2020 by telescoper

The news that the UK is to leave the Erasmus+ scheme for student exchanges shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson explicitly promised in the House of Commons in January 2020 that it wouldn’t happen and what he says is virtually guaranteed to be the opposite of the truth.

I quote:

There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme. We will continue to participate. UK students will continue to be able to enjoy the benefits of exchanges with our European friends and partners, just as they will continue to be able to come to this country.

In a similar vein, the stated reason for this decision (“financial considerations”) is also untrue. (Contrary to popular myth the United Kingdom is not the most popular destination for Erasmus students; that is Spain.) The cost of participating in Erasmus is modest and the benefits huge for both incoming and outgoing students and indeed the relevant home and host institutions. The real reason for this act of vandalism is demonstrated by the announcement of a new £100 million Turing scheme that is one-way only. Evidently the UK doesn’t want any nasty foreign students coming here. Equally evidently the UK Government believes that other countries will gleefully accept thousands of UK students in their universities while not having the mutual benefit of an exchange programme. Above all, most young people in the United Kingdom did not vote for Brexit in the referendum and remain strongly pro-EU. To the Brexit Government that means they must be punished. Come to think of it, the Erasmus slogan (“Enriching Lives, Opening Minds”) is pretty much the antithesis of the UK Government’s isolationist stance.

It’s “interesting” (and, to me, sickening) that the name of Alan Turing has been appropriated for this new programme. Turing, I’ll remind you, was a man whose life was destroyed by the British authorities despite everything he did for the United Kingdom during World War 2. The (perhaps unintentional) symbolism is obvious. If any of the institutions to which participating students are sent via this scheme are in countries where homosexuality is still illegal, the irony will be complete.

According to the UK Government’s own numbers, the £100 million cost of the Turing scheme will support 35,000 students to study or work internationally. That works out at less than £3000 per student. How much will that pay for? In the absence of a mutual fee waiver (which is how Erasmus+ works) it seems it will cover only a small fraction of the cost of a year abroad. Not to mention the need to acquire a visa which was not the case for movement within the EU. Still, that probably doesn’t matter, as it is only the rich who are meant to benefit.

There are a number of interesting points about UK participation in Erasmus+ which may not have been fully thought through by the Johnson government. I know it’s astonishing to think that a Cabinet full of such stellar intellects might have missed something important, but in fact Higher Education is a devolved responsibility in the United Kingdom. What the Government says about Education policy therefore only really applies to England. Scotland and Wales could in principle decide to continue as members. Moreover, if the Turing scheme is administered through the Department of Education, appropriate funding should be passed to the devolved nations by the Barnett formula which they can spend on continuing Erasmus+ participation if they wish. There’ll be legal arguments of course, but on the face of it that seems to be the situation.

Students in Northern Ireland won’t have to worry, however, as the Republic has already offered to fund the participation of NI students, a decision as generous and politically astute as the English decision is petty and mean-spirited.

The decision to withdraw from Erasmus+ will make life very difficult for many UK Higher Education institutions as many run degree programmes that include a year abroad facilitated by the scheme. As of January 1st 2021 they will no longer be able to offer these programme. I know from my own past experience how long it takes to set exchange programmes, how much work is involved in keeping it going, but how rewarding the participating students find it. Tragically, all that will disappear in the New Year.

But there may be silver lining for Ireland. Students from the EU wishing to study in an English-speaking country are likely to be looking at Irish universities in increasing numbers. We already have quite a few at Maynooth (though not this year because of Covid-19 travel restrictions); for information see here. I think there’s a strong case to exploit the British mistake and boost the involvement in Erasmus+ across the Republic.

I would very much like to do this in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University. Though a small Department, we are in a good position to develop more international partnerships because of our collaborative networks. Indeed, although it is the Christmas break, I today received two emails from colleagues abroad wondering if we would be interested in replacing UK institutions. I think we could offer a very nice option for students from Spain and Italy. The problem is that to balance the books we really need to encourage more of our own students to venture abroad. That is difficult because, in Ireland (as in the UK), only a small number of students studying Physics at third level institutions have proficiency in a European language (other than Irish). That may not effect the teaching too much, as many European universities do teach science courses in English, but for life in general it is more difficult if you can’t speak the local language to any real extent. For this reason, it may be better for us to target postgraduate rather than undergraduate students for such an arrangement.

That’s another job to add to my list for the New Year!

Computable Numbers, 80 Years on..

Posted in History, mathematics, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on May 28, 2016 by telescoper

There’s been rather a lot of sad news conveyed via this blog recently, so I thought that today I’d mark a happier event. Eighty years ago today (i.e. on 28th May 1936), a paper by Alan Turing arrived at the London Mathematical Society. Entitled “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Enstscheidungsproblem“, this was not only enormously influential but also a truly beautiful piece of work. Turing was only 23 when he wrote it. It was delivered to the London Mathematical Society about 6 months after it was submitted,  i.e. in November 1936..

Here’s the first page:


The full reference is

Proc. London Math. Soc. (1937) s2-42 (1): 230-265. doi: 10.1112/plms/s2-42.1.230

You can find the full paper here. I heartily recommend reading it, it’s wonderful.


Why not pardon Turing?

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , , , on February 9, 2012 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist a quick comment or two on the government’s decision not to issue a posthumous pardon to Alan Turing, in the matter of his his criminal conviction for homosexuality, recently announced by Lord McNally. This is Lord McNally’s reply to a question asked by Lord Sharkey:

The question of granting a posthumous pardon to Mr Turing was considered by the previous Government in 2009.

As a result of the previous campaign, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an unequivocal posthumous apology to Mr Turing on behalf of the Government, describing his treatment as “horrifying” and “utterly unfair”. Mr Brown said the country owed him a huge debt. This apology was also shown at the end of the Channel 4 documentary celebrating Mr Turing’s life and achievements which was broadcast on 21 November 2011.

A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted. It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd-particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times.

In other words he is using the argument that Turing was properly convicted of behaviour that was considered an offence at the time so that conviction should not be negated.

This argument is entirely specious. A pardon is an act of clemency or forgiveness, exercised under the royal prerogative whenever advised by the government. It is not the mechanism for overturning wrongful convictions, so the observation that this conviction was lawful at the time is a red herring. Moreover, in what I consider to be an entirely analogous situation, all soldiers convicted and executed for cowardice in World War I actually received pardons in 2006. Their actions were also considered punishable at the time. This sets a clear precedent. Why is the Turing case logically different?

The answer to that is that if Turing were to receive a pardon, why should all the other gay people convicted of the criminal offence of being homosexual not also receive pardons? Why does it matter logically in this case that Turing was a brilliant mathematician who made immense contributions to the Allied effort during World War II? What about those gay men who were prevented from joining the services because of their sexuality? Why should one’s brilliance or eminence in a given field lead one to be treated differently under the law? Wouldn’t that just be saying “yes, he was gay, which is a problem, but we’ll forgive him because he made up for it in other ways”?

I think the government’s primary motivation for denying a pardon in this case is in fact the argument I just gave: that they should then have to pardon everyone convicted of homosexuality…

Of course you might ask in that case why it is that people are campaigning for a pardon for Turing in particular? Why not campaign for a universal pardon? I admit that it’s slightly illogical to do so, but it’s a question of pragmatism. Arguing the case for Turing in particular provides a focus which hopefully will lead to a wider resolution of the issue.

Asking for a posthumous pardon isn’t asking for very much, but I suspect the government is more worried about those people still alive who were convicted of homosexuality before 1967, which is when such acts were decriminalized. The case for denying pardons in this situation, when pardons were granted in the case of the executed WWI troops, therefore rests entirely on the possibility that there may be some pesky people who were convicted of homosexuality in the past but who unfortunately, unlike Turing, are not yet dead.

That’s the message this decision sends from the government to gay people.

Remembered Heroes

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, Cricket, History with tags , on November 13, 2011 by telescoper

Two things have come up recently that I’d like to mention here. They’re both, in their different ways, about heroes, but the remembrance that’s called for is different to that normally observed on this day.

First, I couldn’t resist passing on a link to a short but intensely moving piece by Alan Garner in yesterday’s Guardian about Alan Turing, in the My Hero series.

I suppose most readers of this blog will know of Turing’s pioneering work on computer science and his crucial contribution to the war effort in cracking the German Enigma codes. I also suppose most know about the circumstances of his death; he took is own life in 1954 after being forced to endure a form of chemical castration after being found guilty of homosexuality, in case you didn’t already know. Many of you will also have read some (or in my case many) of the various books about his life and work. (If not I recommend Andrew Hodges’ excellent The Enigma of Intelligence, which I read when I was an undergraduate, over 25 years ago.)

But what those of us who never met Alan Turing will never know is what he was really like as a man, and that is why pieces like the one by Alan Garner are so moving. Turing comes across as eccentric (I think we all know what was the case), but also as a very amusing character who was excellent company and a bit of a chatterbox, despite suffering from a stammer. The circumstances of his arrest and subsequent conviction for the “crime” of being gay also confirm the impression that he had an almost childlike innocence about the world outside academe. In other words, he was a very easy target. We like to think we live in more enlightened times nowadays – and I suppose in many ways we do – but I think Alan Turing would be as much, or even more of, a misfit in today’s world than he was in the 1950s. Although he was undoubtedly a genius, he rarely bothered to publish academic papers so I dread to think how he would fare in the present university system!

Anyway, I’d just like to say thank you to Alan Garner (who knew Turing well as a friend) for sharing his thoughts and experiences. I may have never met Alan Turing, but he’s my hero too…

And that brings me to another sad story. I only learned this morning that former cricketer Peter Roebuck died yesterday, at the age of 55, having taken his own life in a hotel room in Cape Town. Peter Roebuck always seemed to me an unlikely figure for a sportsman, with his spectacles, cerebral air, and rather stooped gait he looked more like an academic than an athlete, but he was a fine cricketer. I remember him very well from the time I was a schoolboy mad keen about cricket, and I liked him particularly because he wasn’t – or didn’t seem to be – someone blessed with prodigious natural skill. He made it in the professional game because he worked hard. People like that are always heroes to those, like me, who love sport but don’t have any innate talent for it.

After retiring from cricket Roebuck went to live in Australia and took up a career as writer and commentator on the sport, a role at which he excelled, as much for his lucid prose as for his deep technical knowledge. Although he mainly covered Australian cricket, I often read his articles and admired his writing enormously. I have no idea what caused him to commit suicide, and I wouldn’t wish to speculate about that, let alone presume to judge. All I can say is that it’s the saddest thing when someone takes their own life, whatever the circumstances.

UPDTATE: 14/11/2011 There’s a lot of traffic coming to this post via Google searches of “Was Peter Roebuck gay” or suchlike. I have no idea whether he was or wasn’t and I’m not going to indulge in gossip, so I’m afraid that if that’s the reason you’re here you’re going to be disappointed.

Rest in peace, Peter Roebuck.


Azed 2000

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords with tags , , , , , , on September 26, 2010 by telescoper

I was up bright and early yesterday in order to get the train to Oxford where a lunch was held in honour of Jonathan Crowther, who, under the pseudonym Azed, has been setting cryptic crosswords in the Observer for the best part of 40 years. Today (Sunday 26th September 2010) sees the publication of the 2000th Azed puzzle, hence yesterday’s celebration. There’s also a special piece in the Observer today to mark the occasion. One of the authors of that piece, Colin Dexter of Inspector Morse fame (who has won the Azed competition more times than anyone), was at the lunch yesterday; he has a celebration of his own coming up, as he will be 80 years old next week.

I’ve blogged about my enjoyment of Azed‘s puzzles before and was particularly looking forward to the possibility of meeting the man himself and also being able to put faces to the names that often appear (mostly above mine) in the Azed Honours table.

I got quite an early train from Cardiff in order to give myself time to browse a few bookshops in Oxford before the lunch got under way with drinks at noon in Wadham College. There then followed a musical tribute to Azed in various parodies of Gilbert & Sullivan (I am the very model of a modern cruciverbalist, etc…) and others (Azed, Azed, give me your answer do….). Mingling with the other guests I got the chance to chat to some proper professional crossword setters. I’ve never actually tried to set an entire cryptic crossword puzzle but I think I’ll probably give it a go one day, just for fun. Based on what I heard, setting crosswords, even for the national broadsheets, is not something that one can easily make a living doing.  Aside from the professional setters – who seem to dominate the Azed prize list, not surprisingly – there were lots of ordinary folk who just enjoy doing the puzzles.

The lunch was quite splendid (scallops to start, followed by duck) and  lashings of nice wine. Afterwards there were various speeches and presentations, and the results of the last competition (No. 1997) were handed out. I got an “HC” for my clue to the word FADO:

It’s a transitory thing, love, for Portuguese folk (4)

(FAD+O); but once again the winning clues were much better than mine! Officially, HC stands for Highly Commended, but I always interpret it as Hard Cheese.

The guest speaker was Richard Stilgoe (remember him?) who gave a very droll and at the same time very interesting speech that included several things I hadn’t realised before. One is that TWELVE+ONE is an anagram of “ELEVEN+TWO”, perhaps the only example of an anagram that works with characters as well as numbers, i.e. 12+1=11+2. The other, more important, thing he mentioned that struck me was about Apple computers. As you all probably know I’m not a particular fan of Macs and the like, which together with my more general Luddite inclinations, probably explains why I didn’t know the origin of the Apple logo (an apple with a bite taken out from it) .

For those of you who don’t know, the reason why the Apple has a bite taken from it is a reference to Alan Turing, the British mathematician who did more than anyone else to pave the way towards the age of electronic computers through his work on cracking German wartime codes. Turing was gay, but  lived in a time when male homosexual behaviour was a criminal offence. When his sexuality led to a criminal conviction, the courts, instead of sending him to prison, decided to subject him to a barbaric medical “treatment” tantamount to chemical castration. The effect of unbalancing his hormones was to make him so depressed that he decided to take his own life. He knew that cyanide was a quick and effective way of doing this, but also knew that it tasted foul. He therefore made a solution of cyanide and injected it into an apple which he then ate. The bite out of the Apple logo is there as a mark of respect for Alan Turing.

That story is probably old hat to most of you, but I have to admit that hearing it for the first time has rather changed my view of Steve Jobs!

Anyway, after lunch we had the chance to mingle in the pleasant grounds of Wadham College, but I couldn’t stay too long as I had a train to catch. Although I was more than a little tipsy, I managed to get the train I had planned and made it back to Cardiff in time to cater for Columbo‘s insulin needs. On the way back I had a go at the tricky Araucaria puzzle in Saturday’s Guardian, which was of the alphabetical type I enjoy best. I’m glad to say I got it finished in order to clear the decks for today’s Azed 2000 puzzle. I haven’t started it yet, but at first glance it looks like a corker!