The Importance of Math (On The Imitation Game)

One of the first novels I ever outlined featured Alan Turing as a supporting character. Er, sort of the ghost of Alan Turing, actually. Possibly not my best idea.

I abandoned that project pretty early on, but the fact remains that Mr. Turing has long been one of my idols. His is one of those great minds whose ideas are credited with establishing the foundation upon which my chosen collegiate field of study – Computer Science – is built.

So I was really eager to see The Imitation Game this weekend. The fact is I’m always happy when something I know a lot about is turned into a book or movie for everyone else to enjoy. “Holy…! They’re making a Watchmen movie!” Or “I can’t believe someone is brave enough to try to turn Cloud Atlas into a film!”

It’s also true that most of the time I feel a little alone in my enjoyment of and admiration for these adaptions, so I’ve been glad to see The Imitation Game earning such wide acclaim, even nominated for a 2015 Oscar in the Best Picture category.

I should say now – this is not a review of the movie. I’ll leave that to more educated critics. No, what I really want to talk about is the great job the film does at showing us all The Importance of Math (and Computers). I’m going to try to do it without unleashing any spoilers. Hate the spoilers.

The real Alan Turing

The real Alan Turing

Alan Turing is as important to the average computer scientist as Shakespeare is to a literature major. He’s one of the pioneers of the field. Probably the one, along with perhaps Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, who I’ve studied most through the years. (Speaking of finally having their story told in a movie – what about Ada?!? – I mean, a woman in the early 1800’s who was the world’s first computer programmer and who also happens to be the daughter of famous poet Lord Byron? Come on. She even has an entire language named after her.)

Anyway, as I said, I’m thrilled to see Turing’s story of heroism in World War II exposed to a larger audience. But I’m equally pleased that the movie shows us all just how powerful MATH is, what an important and sometimes unknown role it has played in history. Math and logic. Math and logic and, more recently, the computers behind them. Because long before I fell in love with writing and learning all I could about story, I developed a deep adoration for math and computer programming.

This was it! The TI-99/4A!

This was it! The TI-99/4A!

Yep, I was that kid in his bedroom on sunny days writing games on his Texas Instruments computer, saving them onto cassette tapes (yes, yes, before even floppies were prevalent. Shut up. I’m old.) with that awful modem sound piercing the air as each byte was recorded.

You know the games, from back in the early ’80s, don’t you? All those text-based adventures?

You are in a room with a long table and chairs. Candles burn on the table. There is a bag in the corner. What do you want to do?

>>Go left.

You hit a wall.

You are in a room with a long table and chairs. Candles burn…

And they say today’s games are thrilling. Pfft.

Yeah, so I was that kid who got to college and knew his major from day one. No question. Computer Science.

Back to the movie, though. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to let you know that the work of Turing and his team at Bletchley Park during the war saved millions of lives. If you go see it (and don’t know the story already), you’ll see how this comes about. The summary is…math. Math and one of the earliest computing machines ever built.

But it’s not just old wars where math and computers are saving lives. Today’s programmers do it every day. Maybe it would be hard to argue that Facebook or Twitter save anyone on a day-to-day basis (although, there was that guy trapped in the Waterstones), but there’s so much else going on, much of it hidden, like Turing’s work had been.

In college, one of my side projects was working with a professor from the School of Management on improving the productivity and efficiency of the New Haven Fire Department. I wrote a simulation program that tested and proved Professor Swersey’s theories on merging fire and medical units, not just to save money but also to reduce response time and save lives. It was really satisfying work, and one of the few such projects I can talk about, since most of my work since has been done for clients under confidentiality agreements.

So it’s true that so many programmers are following Turing’s lead all the time – using math and logic and computers to save lives everyday.

I encourage you to see the movie and find out more about Alan Turing and his team. If you have a love of math like I do, it’ll warm your heart to see brilliant people saving the world with it. And if you haven’t loved math to this point, I hope you’ll at least develop a respect for its power and importance.

Some writing tidbits about the movie itself (from an insider, as it were):

– I loved how the writers used the device of the Turing Test itself as a way of telling the story throughout the film. Last summer there was a lot of fervor over “Eugene” – the first program ever to supposedly pass the Turing Test. Depending on who you listen to, anyway.

– The precise manner of Turing’s unfortunate and untimely death is not fully described in the film. I won’t do it here, either, but if you want to, you can read about it here. Once you know the details, you’ll see some poignant references to it throughout the film, particularly in the gift Turing chooses to offer to his Bletchley Park team to get them to like him in one scene.




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