Wednesday 27 February 2013

Hardy and Turing

On today's Unpacking Your Chair module, we had an fascinating conversation with Newcastle's VC, Professor Chris Brink.

He started by giving his view on the role of the professoriate: 'to profess.'

But he proceeded to expand and explore this by discussing two mathematicians: first G. H. Hardy and then Alan Turing.  He read a number of extracts from Hardy's apologia, in which Hardy argues for the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and goes on to boast of the fact that nothing he has done is of any practical utility, and finally to lament that fact that, as creative research in Maths is a 'young man's game' his life is, to all intents and purposes, over: having reached middle age, there is nothing more he can add to his life's work.

Professor Brink was quick to agree with the pursuit of knowledge being worthy in its own right, but challenged whether Hardy's account was the whole story.

To make this point, he then told us a part of Turing's story of which I, at least, had previously been unaware.  Before the war, Turing (another pure mathematician) left Cambridge for Princeton. There, as the war-clouds gathered, he realised that code-breaking was likely to be of great importance, and decided to investigate the computability of de-coding - including building his own rudimentary kit (illicitly) in the Physics workshop in 1937.  The day after war was declared, in 1939, he reported to Bletchley, and the rest, to coin a cliché, is history.

Professor Brink's point was that interest in, and engagement with, the world beyond one's discipline or institution is also of high value: Turing's work on codes and the machinery to decode them was a direct precursor of his involvement in the Manchester computer.  His engagement with real world problems, as well as winning the battle of the Atlantic, also reinvigorated and informed his continuing research.

And as for Impact...

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