Alan Turing: Why So Smart?

Here’s what made Alan Turing so smart:

Alan Turing was a British mathematician and scientist who lived in the first half of the 20th century.

He is known as the father of computer science, the person who conceptualized the general computer, and an amazing code breaker.

He even led the team that cracked German codes in WWII.

So if you want to learn all about what made Alan Turing one of the most brilliant minds in modern history, then this article is for you.

Let’s get right into it!

Alan Turing: Why So Smart? (Everything to Know)

Who Was Alan Turing?

A blue plaque on Warrington Cresent in the Maida Vale area of London, marking the location where famous Code-breaker Alan Turing was born

Alan Turing was a British mathematician, cryptanalyst, computer scientist, and mathematical biologist who lived in the first half of the 20th century.

He made significant contributions to each of those fields and was an indispensable member of British intelligence throughout WWII.

I’ll get into his specific accomplishments as we go, but he’s definitely on a list of names that comes up when people think about some of the smartest people of all time.

Why Was Alan Turing Important? (4 Contributions)

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Turing was important mostly for his contributions to math and science, and also for his impressive work during WWII.

He is considered the father of computer science, a mathematical genius, one of the best code breakers of all time, and a rare genius who could see well ahead of his own time.

Let’s look at his contributions to the various fields where he worked professionally to get a taste of how much he did for the world.

#1 Cryptology

Close up of rotary dials on the front of the British military's Bombe machine, used to decode German Enigma machine during World War 2

Among Turing’s most famous achievements are those in cryptology.

If you’re not familiar with cryptology, it’s the study of codes.

Cryptology is what computers use to secure online banking and purchases, and it’s actually been an important thing to people for thousands of years.

Julius Caesar was known to send coded messages to his subordinates during war, and more than 2,000 years later, Alan Turing was pushing the envelope in cryptology.

He did a lot for the field, but what really made him famous was his work during WWII.

He was the chief British codebreaker during the war, and his success led to him pretty much running that allied code-breaking department.

He is largely credited with cracking the German Enigma code, which was used to coordinate U-boat strikes in the Atlantic Ocean.

Some experts say that Turing’s work on the Enigma code shortened the war by 2 years and saved millions of lives.

Turing also headed the team that cracked the Lorenz cipher.

While the Enigma code was used in naval warfare, the Lorenz cipher was used by Germany’s high command.

Cracking this code gave the allies massive advantages in the war in Europe.

It’s hard to find a single individual who contributed more to the allied successes in WWII.

#2 Computer Science

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While Turing’s accomplishments in cryptology were impressive, they were largely forgotten by the masses for many decades.

A big part of that is because much of that work was classified.

Another reason is that his work in computer science changed the world more significantly than his work in cryptology.

Turing is called the father of computer science for a reason.

Now, Turing did not invent the first computer, nor did he create the first computer algorithm.

He’s not the father of computers.

Instead, he formalized an entirely new science.

Turing wrote papers that laid the groundwork for a prototype of a new computer that was programmable.

Before Turing’s work, computers were very limited in what they could calculate.

They were extremely specialized machines, and if you wanted to compute something outside of a computer’s original design, you had to build an entirely different machine.

It’s why the Germans were using different devices for different codes during the war.

Turing created a theoretical framework for a general-purpose computer that could be programmed to do just about anything.

Looking back from the present day, it’s easy to understand.

We use these computers all the time.

But before Turing, no one had even conceptualized the idea of a programmable computer.

Not only that, but Turing wrote multiple papers that created the entire theoretical framework for developing these computers.

Computer science is considered a field of scientific study, and Turing more or less invented it.

#3 The Turing Test

Man chatting with a bot on smart phone

Turing also laid the foundations for artificial intelligence (AI).

Technically, it’s a subclass of computer science, but it’s worth mentioning this specific addition to the field.

Before Turing’s work, the idea of a computer that could adapt to new parameters without human control was inconceivable.

Turing not only conceptualized a computer that could be programmed; he anticipated a time when computers would be able to alter their own programs autonomously.

Today, we call this AI, and it’s present in a lot of computer applications.

Heuristics, machine learning, and neural networks are probably the most common applications of artificial intelligence, and they essentially allow computers to adjust how they function without human input.

As an example, there are chess programs that can adapt to human players all on their own.

Turing knew that computers would be capable of this, and he even anticipated levels of computer intelligence that would potentially pass for true intelligence.

He actually came up with a simple test that would define when a computer has achieved genuine intelligence, and it goes like this.

If a computer is able to have a conversation with an operator, then that computer is intelligent as soon as the operator cannot tell that it’s a computer.

The idea is that if the operator actually can’t see the machine and can only talk to it, if the computer convinces the person that it’s intelligent, then it is in fact intelligent.

It’s pretty simple in concept, but this became known as the Turing test.

Computers at the time definitely were not capable of passing the Turing test, but these days, it can sometimes be difficult to tell if you’re chatting with a person or a bot.

As computers get more sophisticated, it might eventually become impossible to tell.

At that point, computers will be passing the Turing test.

#4 Mathematical Biology

Laboratory worker testing chemicals

Turing pushed code-breaking to new levels, invented an entire science, and anticipated the future of computers beyond what have yet experienced.

We’re still not done.

He was also a pioneer in the field of mathematical biology.

Even the name of the study sounds impressive. 

Turing’s work in this field was so specialized that it’s hard to break it down into common terms.

Basically, he used really hard math to model chemical reactions in living organisms.

Before his models, people knew that chemistry was an important part of biological processes, but it was really hard to track exactly what was going on.

Sure, you could perform chemical tests, but that often killed the organism involved.

With Turing’s mathematical models, researchers were able to analyze and predict chemical reactions without the need to perform deadly tests.

This pushed the entire field of biochemistry to new levels, and much of modern medicine is built on top of Turing’s work.

Was Alan Turing Smart?

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Was Turing a smart person?

Based on everything you just read, I’ll let you answer that question for yourself.

Just in case you have any doubts about his intelligence, I’m going to cover even more of his achievements in a little bit.

These achievements are more specific, and they show how Turing saw the world differently from anyone else.

Was Alan Turing a Genius?

Thoughtful woman sitting on the carpet and doing work on a laptop at home

Now, this is an interesting question.

There are actually a few different accepted definitions of the word genius.

One is an “extraordinary intellectual power especially as manifested in creative activity.”

Basically, you’re a genius if you do things very out of the ordinary.

Another is “a person with a very high IQ.”

That definition doesn’t say how high the IQ has to be.

Different people and groups will argue about the exact number, but most would say somewhere from 140 to 145 is the minimum threshold to be a genius.

By the first definition, Turing was definitely a genius.

Inventing an entirely new science probably counts as an extraordinary intellectual manifestation.

As for IQ, the rumor is that his score was 185.

That’s way above the genius level.

In fact, however high you think that is as an IQ, you’re probably underestimating it.

Such an IQ is roughly 1 in a hundred million, meaning that Turing was probably among the 25 smartest people in the world.

All of that said, Turing’s IQ tests have not been preserved, so this number is a rumor.

It’s a believable number based on his accomplishments and what was written about him at the time, but it’s not something we can be certain is true.

How Smart Was Alan Turing? (2 Achievements)

Student in deep thought with laptop and book on coding

We’ve established that Turing was definitely a genius by one definition and plausibly a genius by another.

That alone might satisfy you, but just in case, I’ll hit you with a few more facts.

If you really want to get a taste of just how smart and revolutionary he was as a thinker, there are two specific achievements that come up.

He wrote an academic paper when he was in his early 20s, and two very different but extremely important ideas came out of it.

#1 Alan Turing’s First Paper

Mathematician solving problems and writing formulas on the chalkboard

I’m going to draw some strong comparisons between Turing and Albert Einstein in this section.

You think Einstein was a pretty smart guy, yeah?

Well, Turing was his match in a lot of ways.

A lot of people don’t really know exactly why Einstein was such a famous scientist.

There are several reasons, but it all started in 1905.

He was 26 at the time, and he published three different physics papers, each of which completely changed the world.

One of those papers explained the photoelectric effect (don’t worry, we don’t have to do any physics today), and Einstein won a Nobel Prize for that paper.

Arguably, the other two papers were just as worthy.

Basically, at a young age, Einstein revolutionized his field.

Not very many scientists can make that claim.

But, Turing can (or at least could have).

You see, he was 23 when he published his first academic paper (he was in grad school at the time).

It was titled “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.”

That name is already a challenge.

The concept in this paper is abstract and challenging.

It actually changed mathematics forever, so it’s not an easy thing to explain, but I’ll try.

The idea at the time was that you might be able to find a mathematical technique that could solve all math problems.

It was something a lot of mathematicians were trying to find—something of a Holy Grail in math.

Turing proved that such a thing was mathematically impossible.

He basically worked as a human computer to show that no matter what math technique you use, there are going to be things that exist within math that your method can’t identify.

In other words, there is no universal mathematical approach.

It’s not an easy concept to wrap your head around, but it’s a huge deal in the world of math, and it redirected the efforts of experts in the field to this day.

This paper was easily as important to math as any of Einstein’s papers were to physics. 

And, if you recall, Turing’s most famous achievements were not as a mathematician.

They were as a computer scientist, so that should give you a little more insight as to how smart this guy really was.

#2 The Turing Machine

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Here’s the crazier part.

Turing’s paper changed the course of mathematics, but that’s not even what was the most remarkable thing in it.

You see, in order to get through the proof, Turing did something known as a thought experiment.

He suggested that readers imagine a machine that could compute numbers.

Going through that imaginative process, he walked readers through how computation would work, and as a result, he was able to prove that there is no universal mathematical process.

Here’s the thing.

Such a computer didn’t exist at the time.

In fact, no one else had even considered such an idea.

In order to work through a math proof, Turing invented the idea of the general computer as a byproduct.

That theoretical device was nicknamed a “Turing Machine” after the man who conceptualized it.

The idea in the paper is what Turing later expanded upon when he built the foundations of computer science.

He thought up the most revolutionary idea in the history of humanity so far, all as a thought experiment to solve a math problem.

Are you convinced?

Do you think he was pretty smart?