HOWTO think like Alan Turing

In early celebration of the Turing centenary this week, Ars Technica's Matthew Lasar has a lovely list of seven of Alan Turing's habits of thought, including this one: Be Playful.

There was something about Turing that made his friends and family want to compose rhymes. His proud father openly admitted that he hadn't the vaguest idea what his son's mathematical inquiries were about, but it was all good anyway. "I don't know what the 'ell 'e meant / But that is what 'e said 'e meant," John wrote to Alan, who took delight in reading the couplet to friends.

His fellow students sang songs about him at the dinner table: "The maths brain lies often awake in his bed / Doing logs to ten places and trig in his head."

His gym class colleagues even sang his praises as a linesman: "Turing's fond of the football field / For geometric problems the touch-lines yield."

Turing's favorite physical activity, however, was running, especially the long-distance variety. "He would amaze his colleagues by running to scientific meetings," Hodges writes, "beating the travelers by public transport." He even came close to a shot at the 1948 Olympic Games, a bid cut short by an injury.

The highly productive habits of Alan Turing

(Image: Alan Turing in 1927, Sherborne school archives)


  1. I wonder if running long distances helped him in his thinking? I certainly find the repetitive nature of running (or cycling) useful when you want to think something through without attacking it directly. It’s a shame that’s never led to something like envisioning a computer in my case, just more mundane solutions to problems!

    1. I find any activity that removes you from the situation helps. Some find their best ideas in the shower, or while having a cigarette or cup of tea in the garden.

      I always have my revelations on my walk to and from the office.

  2. How to Think like Alan Turing:

    Step 1: Be sure to be born one of the singular, unparalleled geniuses of your generation.
    Step 2: Okay…. first, go into the….  no… okay – well actually it’s pretty much just step 1. 

  3. He even came close to a shot at the 1948 Olympic Games, a bid cut short by an injury.

    It’s very good to know that Mr Turing had more than a bit of fun, the martyr image is not the full picture of the man.

    1. Edwin Hubble was also quite famous for his athleticism. From Wikipedia:

      He won seven first places and a third place in a single high school track and field meet in 1906. That year he also set the state high school record for the high jump in Illinois. Another of his personal interests was dry-fly fishing, and he practiced amateur boxing as well. 

  4. Imagine what Alan Turing might have done if he hadn’t been persecuted and driven to suicide by homophobes…

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