The Imitation Game

I review the new movie ‘The Imitation Game’ below. It’s about Alan Turing and the breaking of the Enigma code. If you care about spoilers, they’re here so stop reading now. However, this is a pretty well known story I think these days.

The quote of the movie is

Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

Alan Turing was certainly different. As was Joan Clarke, the sole female code cracker portrayed (again, no idea if this is accurate to Bletchley Park, but the recruiting strategy of using Crosswords in Newspapers is a clever one). And of course the rest of the Enigma code breaking team were likely different in their own ways as well in being quite intelligent at puzzles, games, and other logical work. Basically, this was an era when different minds were not as celebrated as they are today (and in many cases still aren’t and it’s movies like this that really do make the case for inclusion).

Still, it was a whole team (men & women) that broke Enigma with government (military) funding that was fickle, at least according to the movie. I don’t know how true that was, but certainly the approach Turing took; building ‘Christopher’ to crack the code, eventually based on a German weather report (truly, the down fall of all codes is the humans using them and making some mistakes or repetitions) was difficult, expensive and took time to pan out. An understandably impatient British Government needed the code broken to save Britain.

Two of the big stories from Britain that were the keys to World War II were technological or information based. The first is radar that was key to winning the battle of Britain. And the second is the Bletchley Park story of cracking Enigma and keeping the fact that they’d broken the code secret from nearly everyone. The sustained resources put into it and being insistent and putting the pressure on probably didn’t help get the problem solved faster. The stakes were quite clear; The Imitiation Game shows some of the blitz of London and people huddled in underground station tunnels to seek shelter from the bombs. They also show British citizens trying to get on as normally as possible; there’s a scene of an old lady sitting on a pile of rubble with a tea cup sitting next to her.

It demonstrates that solving problems that have never been solved before takes time and different thinking that hasn’t existed before. Even when the stakes are high, rushing out a flawed solution (i.e. solving the Enigma code on one day before it changed encryption the next) isn’t ultimately all that helpful as is made plain when the British realize they have to be very cautious to not signal to the Germans that they’d broken Enigma and let some planned attacks happen anyway based on some statistical models that Turing helped develop and put into practice. It can’t have been easy figuring out the protocols for what German operations would go forward and which The British could counter.

Turing was a mathematical/logical titan whose ideas live on today (as the movie somewhat patronizingly points out at the end we call ‘Turing machines’ ‘computers’ now…). He compares himself unfavorably to Einstein and Newton early on in the movie, but clearly, he had a talent for cryptography. This is also another movie that portrays a scientist like Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory. I don’t know how Alan Turing was to work with, but certainly it’s the scientist type we see over and over again (obviously, there really are scientists like Sheldon out there, but that isn’t all of us…unfortunately, I tend to be like Sheldon :-/). Certainly, Turing was an important figure in the history of science/math as was Joan Clarke and the rest of the team (I’d actually like to know more about her, but perhaps that’s another movie waiting to happen).

Knowledge work takes time. It often doesn’t deliver an answer on a schedule and is an ongoing process. It’s why governments fund basic science and not companies. The payoffs are too far down the road for most businesses. Turing and his work are part of a long chain of scientists that have contributed to our digital age, and of course, we shouldn’t underestimate those that didn’t develop the tools, but developed the protocols and governance to implement and manage the cracked Enigma code. Without them, likely it would not have been as effective an operation. It truly is remarkable that The British pulled this off and kept it secret for 50 some years.

I’ll takes all types. And determining where each of us fits best with out talents is a good problem to be a part of and solve. I am still largely trying to find where I fit in. In fact, one of the keys in the movie comes from Helen, one of the British women that recorded German transmissions when she says that she has a relationship with the German communication officer that transmits the code since each British recorder is assigned a specific radio tower to record from. Basically, Turing suddenly realizes ‘Oh, people talk to each other and leave traces of themselves in their speech and communication, including identity clues’.

The Imitation Game can partly be seen as a meditation on how we do science now under tight budgets and minds not being free to pursue the big ideas, the out-of-the-box ideas. I suppose a few fortunate researchers get to do that (the few winners in what is becoming a winner take all system in the science world. Because it is a golden age of science. Just not for most scientists. How to best foster creativity and knowledge generation to solve problems has become ever more important in the 21st century and I’m not sure our current systems are doing the best at fostering that kind of thinking.

As the quote from the movie above suggests, people may have been skeptical of Alan Turing and many on the Enigma cracking team because they were different, not ‘normal’ minds, but that’s who it took to break the code. And in fact, Turing was really punished and committed suicide because he was a homosexual, a crime in the UK at the time that he (and I hope the other 49,000 prosecuted under that law) was pardoned for in 2013. In the movie, the investigating police officer is portrayed as being sympathetic (he thought he was busting a spy!), but am not sure that that’s historically accurate either.

I’m not as smart as Alan Turing. But am trying to cobble out my place and certainly, at least in some respects have never felt like I fit in most places I’ve been. I usually am quick to blame myself for this; but perhaps I can learn to celebrate that fact that I don’t fit in as well in many situations and celebrate others that have been excluded, many for systemic reasons that I am fortunate enough to not have had to deal with.

I’d recommend The Imitation Game. The gimmick of jumping in time between periods of Turing’s life (during the war at Bletchley, in the 1950’s, and when he was a prep school student) is a good one, almost making the movie a puzzle to solve. The performances are good and it’s a hell of a story from history.

do you have thoughts on the movie and what it says about the nature of Knowledge work?





Update: For a better take on the history of Bletchley Park and Alan Turing, see this from the New York Review of Books. And this episode of Tech Stuff from How Stuff works. The Imitation Game is certainly a Hollywood version of the Turing story, with historical inaccuracies and all.



Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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