Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Monday, October 24, 2011
Martyn: Do you think the myth&mystery that surrounds Turing's life (and death) has helped or hindered his legacy as a scientist?
I think Turing’s legacy is clear and unambiguous from a scientific perspective; he’s rightfully acknowledged as one of the fathers of computer science. Every time we use anything with a processor chip in it we owe a debt of gratitude to Turing for his foundational work. Leads onto the more general issue of what we, as a society, owe him, and I think he’s been incredibly badly-served in terms of his general legacy. I think this is partly to do with institutional/societal squeamishness about his sexuality and the way in which he was treated as a result of it, although Gordon Brown did make some steps a few years ago to begin to address this. Hopefully the 2012 Centenary celebrations will help to address this. I also believe that Leonardo di Caprio is rumoured to play Turing in a forthcoming biopic, so we'll wait and see what effect that might have...
Martyn: When you say the morphogenesis theory has only recently been corroborated, could you explain how it has exactly, and why has it taken so long?
At first, his work was largely ignored by experimentalists, because they thought that it relied on a number of unproven hypotheses. Very soon, though, the existence of “natural Turing patterns” was demonstrated by Belousov and Zhabotinsky (B-Z reaction), who showed that one could obtain a number of patterns (spots, spirals, rings, etc.) in a dish simply by mixing several chemicals. Again, though, its sceptical response led to Belousov effectively resigning his commission from science. Only recently has work in fish, chicks and mice lent experimental support to Turing’s idea, but the real contribution was to show how order can arise spontaneously from disorder. It gave us a whole new way of looking at natural systems.
Martyn: Carrying on from this, how typical or atypical is Turing as a figure/personality in the many wider fields he influenced (computer science/AI, chaos theory & synthetic biology)?
I think that we are lucky if we get one Turing in every generation. If there exist common features between some of the leading figures in my field and Turing, it’s the fact that they connect. Len Adleman, who founded my own field of molecular computing, is a leading mathematician (he received a share of the Turing Award for his co-invention of the RSA encryption scheme) came up with the idea for DNA-based algorithms while reading James Watson's The Molecular Biology of the Gene. Erik Winfree's father was Art Winfree, another pioneer of computational biology. They are the only father and son team to hold MacArthur "genius grants", and Erik now looks at computational properties of biochemical systems.
Martyn: Is this a common feature in the biographies of great scientific pioneers - the need for a counter-argument, a listener, a foil, or an adversary - whether real or imaginary?
I think what readers of biographies or popular science have in common with those of fiction is the need for a good narrative. Quite often popular science tries to present the work outside of its human context, which I think is a mistake.
Other characters or institutions can serve to bring out the human characteristics, frailties, etc. of scientists. Richard Feynman is often portrayed as a robust character, but his heartbreaking letter to his dead wife shows a tenderness that we don’t get from pictures of him playing the bongos.
People also love a race - it gives a story a natural energy and drive. Rivalries or counter-arguments also serve to shed light onto the scientific process itself - not just the investigation, but the politics and history of it (eg. Watson and Crick versus Rosalind Franklin).