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Alan Turing and Lionel, the “maths genius”

I am very much looking forward to seeing the film Codebreaker when it is released, describing the brilliant talent and shameful treatment of Alan Turning. A postcard of Turing’s sculptured slate image taken from his statue which has pride of place at Bletchley Park, is fixed on the wall by my desk and adds to the collection of photos of  people who capture my imagination.

Turing’s name was mentioned during a recent dinner with a neighbour and friend Lionel March, a distinguished and talented academic who is a mathematician, architectural and digital artist and  is currently a professor emeritus in Design and Computation, Turing is credited with setting in motion the computer age and his World War II codebreaking helped save two million lives, but in 1954, Turing committed suicide at age 41 after being forced to undergo chemical castration to “fix” his sexual orientation.

Lionel told me a wonderful anecdote about Turing which I am sharing here, which I doubt very much it will be included in this film. It happened a year before Turing’s death when Lionel was dubbed “a maths genius” by the British national press. At the age of 18, Lionel, the son of a caretakers and a pupil at Hove Grammar School, astonished university dons by thinking out an entirely new kind of mathematics. While doodling one evening, he realised he had stumbled across a new kind of algebra which he called ‘Redmun’, and is ‘number’ spelt backwards. He was credited with using Einstein-class mathematics, yet he didn’t see anything about this to his teachers, continuing to enjoy playing sports and his active involvement with the Scouts.

The acclaimed journalist Chapman Pincher wrote about this incredible achievement in the Daily Express, describing how Lionel, who believing that his mathematical reasoning was sound, typed a complicated 16-page thesis and sent it to a university without showing it to anyone. First, it went to Dr Frank Roberts at University College London who invented the TV microscope who described it as “an outstanding contribution to mathematical theory which should be sent immediately to a still higher authority.”

And then it ended up on the desk of Turning,  chief mathematician of the “electronic brain” laboratory at at Manchester University. He was equally impressed and knew that some ‘top flight’ mathematicians were thinking along similar lines. For a schoolboy to work out the whole theory from scratch was unprecedented.

Turing told Lionel: “You have done this research with imagination and competence and I hope you will find time for more.”

Still Lionel told nobody, but his sensational formulation resulted in Lionel gaining a place to study at Magdalene College, Cambridge following a personal recommendation from Turing, where Lionel also excelled while studying under Dennis Babbage who was also a codebreaker at Bletchley during the war.

No wonder then that the boy genius ended up being one of the masterminds behind one of the first spin-outs from Cambridge University following the launch of Applied Research Cambridge, which provided architectural computing software, and paved the way for Lionel to lead a distinguished career in architecture and urban design. He was one of the first contributors to the Cambridge Phenomenon.

Lionel is a very nice man too and his photo shall certainly be added alongside Turing’s on my office wall!

Picture courtesy of Susan Vaughan-Schiele.



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