Computer Scientists

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

Turing was prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual acts; the Labouchere Amendment of 1885 had mandated that “gross indecency” was a criminal offence in the UK. He accepted chemical castration treatment, with DES, as an alternative to prison.

Turing died in 1954, 16 days before his 42nd birthday, from cyanide poisoning. An inquest determined his death as a suicide, but it has been noted that the known evidence is also consistent with accidental poisoning.

In 2009, following an Internet campaign, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for “the appalling way he was treated”. Queen Elizabeth II granted Turing a posthumous pardon in 2013.

The “Alan Turing law” is now an informal term for a 2017 law in the United Kingdom that retroactively pardoned men cautioned or convicted under historical legislation that outlawed homosexual acts. Turing has an extensive legacy with statues of him and many things named after him, including an annual award for computer science innovations. He appears on the current Bank of England £50 note, which was released to coincide with his birthday.

A 2019 BBC series, as voted by the audience, named him the greatest person of the 20th century.

*23 June 1912, Maida Vale, London, England

†7 June 1954, Wilmslow, Cheshire, England

Alan Mathison Turing OBE FRS was an English mathematician, computer scientist, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, and theoretical biologist. Turing was highly influential in the development of theoretical computer science, providing a formalisation of the concepts of algorithm and computation with the Turing machine, which can be considered a model of a general-purpose computer. Turing is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.

Born in Maida Vale, London, Turing was raised in southern England. He graduated at King’s College, Cambridge, with a degree in mathematics. Whilst he was a fellow at Cambridge, he published a proof demonstrating that some purely mathematical yes–no questions can never be answered by computation and defined a Turing machine, and went on to prove the halting problem for Turing machines is undecidable.

In 1938, he obtained his PhD from the Department of Mathematics at Princeton University. During the Second World War, Turing worked for the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking centre that produced Ultra intelligence. For a time he led Hut 8, the section that was responsible for German naval cryptanalysis. Here, he devised a number of techniques for speeding the breaking of German ciphers, including improvements to the pre-war Polish bombe method, an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine.

Turing played a crucial role in cracking intercepted coded messages that enabled the Allies to defeat the Axis powers in many crucial engagements, including the Battle of the Atlantic. Official war historian Harry Hinsley estimated that this work shortened the war in Europe by more than two years and saved over 14 million lives.

After the war, Turing worked at the National Physical Laboratory, where he designed the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE), one of the first designs for a stored-program computer. In 1948, Turing joined Max Newman’s Computing Machine Laboratory, at the Victoria University of Manchester, where he helped develop the Manchester computers and became interested in mathematical biology.

He wrote a paper on the chemical basis of morphogenesis and predicted oscillating chemical reactions such as the Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction, first observed in the 1960s. Despite these accomplishments, he was never fully recognised in his home country during his lifetime because much of his work was covered by the Official Secrets Act.


Dennis Ritchie

Dennis Ritchie

During the 1970s, Ritchie collaborated with James Reeds and Robert Morris on a ciphertext-only attack on the M-209 US cipher machine that could solve messages of at least 2000–2500 letters.Ritchie relates that, after discussions with the NSA, the authors decided not to publish it, as they were told that the principle was applicable to machines still in use by foreign governments.

Ritchie was also involved with the development of the Plan 9 and Inferno operating systems, and the programming language Limbo.

As part of an AT&T restructuring in the mid-1990s, Ritchie was transferred to Lucent Technologies, where he retired in 2007 as head of System Software Research Department.

Ritchie was found dead on October 12, 2011, at the age of 70 at his home in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, where he lived alone. First news of his death came from his former colleague, Rob Pike. He had been in frail health for several years following treatment for prostate cancer and heart disease. News of Ritchie’s death was largely overshadowed by the media coverage of the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, which occurred the week before.

*9 September 1941, Bronxville, New York, U.S.

†12 October 2011, Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, U.S.

Dennis MacAlistair Ritchie was an American computer scientist. He created the C programming language and, with long-time colleague Ken Thompson, the Unix operating system and B programming language. Ritchie and Thompson were awarded the Turing Award from the ACM in 1983, the Hamming Medal from the IEEE in 1990 and the National Medal of Technology from President Bill Clinton in 1999.

Ritchie was the head of Lucent Technologies System Software Research Department when he retired in 2007. He was the “R” in K&R C, and commonly known by his username dmr.

Dennis Ritchie was born in Bronxville, New York. His father was Alistair E. Ritchie, a longtime Bell Labs scientist and co-author of The Design of Switching Circuits on switching circuit theory. As a child, Dennis moved with his family to Summit, New Jersey, where he graduated from Summit High School. He graduated from Harvard University with degrees in physics and applied mathematics.

Version 7 Unix for the PDP-11, including Dennis Ritchie’s home directory: /usr/dmr

In 1967, Ritchie began working at the Bell Labs Computing Sciences Research Center, and in 1968, he defended his PhD thesis on “Computational Complexity and Program Structure” at Harvard under the supervision of Patrick C. Fischer. However, Ritchie never officially received his PhD degree as he did not submit a bound copy of his dissertation to the Harvard library, a requirement for the degree. In 2020, the Computer History museum worked with Ritchie’s family and Fischer’s family and found a copy of the lost dissertation.

During the 1960s, Ritchie and Ken Thompson worked on the Multics operating system at Bell Labs. Thompson then found an old PDP-7 machine and developed his own application programs and operating system from scratch, aided by Ritchie and others. In 1970, Brian Kernighan suggested the name “Unix”, a pun on the name “Multics”. To supplement assembly language with a system-level programming language, Thompson created B. Later, B was replaced by C, created by Ritchie, who continued to contribute to the development of Unix and C for many years.


John von Neumann

John von Neumann

After the war, he served on the General Advisory Committee of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, and consulted for organizations including the United States Air Force, the Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory, the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

As a Hungarian émigré, concerned that the Soviets would achieve nuclear superiority, he designed and promoted the policy of mutually assured destruction to limit the arms race.

In 1955, von Neumann was diagnosed with what was either bone, pancreatic or prostate cancerafter he was examined by physicians for a fall, whereupon they inspected a mass growing near his collarbone.

The cancer was possibly caused by his radiation exposure during his time in Los Alamos National Laboratory. He was not able to accept the proximity of his own demise, and the shadow of impending death instilled great fear in him.

He invited a Catholic priest, Father Anselm Strittmatter, O.S.B., to visit him for consultation. Von Neumann reportedly said, “So long as there is the possibility of eternal damnation for nonbelievers it is more logical to be a believer at the end,” referring to Pascal’s wager. He had earlier confided to his mother, “There probably has to be a God. Many things are easier to explain if there is than if there isn’t.”

Father Strittmatter administered the last rites to him. Some of von Neumann’s friends, such as Abraham Pais and Oskar Morgenstern, said they had always believed him to be “completely agnostic”.Of this deathbed conversion, Morgenstern told Heims, “He was of course completely agnostic all his life, and then he suddenly turned Catholic—it doesn’t agree with anything whatsoever in his attitude, outlook and thinking when he was healthy.”

Father Strittmatter recalled that even after his conversion, von Neumann did not receive much peace or comfort from it, as he still remained terrified of death.

He died at age 53 on February 8, 1957, at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

*28 December 1903, Budapest, Kingdom of Hungary

†8 February 1957, Washington, D.C., United States

John von Neumann was a Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist, computer scientist, engineer and polymath. Von Neumann was generally regarded as the foremost mathematician of his time and said to be “the last representative of the great mathematicians”. He integrated pure and applied sciences.

Von Neumann made major contributions to many fields, including mathematics (foundations of mathematics, functional analysis, ergodic theory, representation theory, operator algebras, geometry, topology, and numerical analysis), physics (quantum mechanics, hydrodynamics, and quantum statistical mechanics), economics (game theory), computing (Von Neumann architecture, linear programming, self-replicating machines, stochastic computing), and statistics.

He was a pioneer of the application of operator theory to quantum mechanics in the development of functional analysis, and a key figure in the development of game theory and the concepts of cellular automata, the universal constructor and the digital computer.

Von Neumann published over 150 papers in his life: about 60 in pure mathematics, 60 in applied mathematics, 20 in physics, and the remainder on special mathematical subjects or non-mathematical ones. His last work, an unfinished manuscript written while he was in the hospital, was later published in book form as The Computer and the Brain.

His analysis of the structure of self-replication preceded the discovery of the structure of DNA. In a shortlist of facts about his life he submitted to the National Academy of Sciences, he wrote, “The part of my work I consider most essential is that on quantum mechanics, which developed in Göttingen in 1926, and subsequently in Berlin in 1927–1929. Also, my work on various forms of operator theory, Berlin 1930 and Princeton 1935–1939; on the ergodic theorem, Princeton, 1931–1932.”

During World War II, von Neumann worked on the Manhattan Project with theoretical physicist Edward Teller, mathematician Stanislaw Ulam and others, problem-solving key steps in the nuclear physics involved in thermonuclear reactions and the hydrogen bomb.

He developed the mathematical models behind the explosive lenses used in the implosion-type nuclear weapon and coined the term “kiloton” (of TNT) as a measure of the explosive force generated.

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