Father of Computer Science Also Left a Mark on Biology

Dec 1, 2014

Alan Turing, 1951
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Alan Turing is best known for inventing the modern computer and breaking the German Enigma code during World War II. He also left a lasting legacy in the field of biology.

It’s not every day that a mathematician plays the hero in a Hollywood spy thriller. But that is precisely what happens in The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. The movie focuses on Turing's instrumental role in breaking the German Enigma code during World War II.

Turing is best known as the father of computer science. As early as 1936, he had developed the concept for a Universal Turing Machine, a predecessor of the modern computer. He later put forward a test for artificial intelligence that is used to this day. He called it, of course, "The Imitation Game."

Like many physicists after World War II, though, Turing also turned his mathematical genius on a central problem in biology - how a single embryonic cell develops into a complex organism with hundreds of different kinds of cells. His 1952 manuscript, The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis, provided a rigorous explanation and launched a new field.

Earlier this year, a team of researchers at Brandeis University published a experiment that both confirmed and improved on Turing's theory. The timing of the study seemed particularly appropriate, for reasons completely unrelated to the science. In 1952, the year Turing published his theory about morphogenesis, he also began a court-ordered course of estrogen treatment. Turing was openly (among friends, at least) gay and chemical castration was his punishment for the then-criminal act of conducting a homosexual relationship. In an amazingly parallel series of events, the Queen of England issued a posthumous royal pardon just months before the extension of his seminal work was published.

Turing died in 1954 at the age of just 41. At the time, his death was ruled suicide by cyanide, but the evidence has since been called into question. Either way, Irving Epstein, a co-author of the Brandeis study and a Turing aficionado, says Turing would be gratified by both the social and technological advances of the past seventy years - changes he would likely have found unfathomable during his life.