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Alan Turing (4) vs. David Blaine; Oprah Winfrey advances

Yesterday, Martin Gardner seemed like he’d be sailing in on a gentle wave of nostalgia, but then Dzhaughn brought us back to reality:

I cannot believe we are having this conversation. Self-made multi-billionaire philanthropist African American warrior saint v. nerd game writer. Let. me. think. Copies of O per copies of Sci Am? I am looking at your bracket, looks a bit pale. Rhymes with male. Twenty nineteen.

If Gardner is THAT important to you, evidently there are backdoors. That’s your business. But it does not work the other way. Once you see your photo in the newspaper, “Columbia Blog dumps Oprah,” there is no going back.

You cannot geng Oprah Winfrey.

And Phil followed up:

Don’t get me wrong, like all right-thinking people of my generation I loved Gardner’s columns and books. But I picked up a copy of ‘The Night is Large’ about ten years ago, read a few dozen pages, then put it aside and haven’t picked it up since. I’ve read a lot of Gardner, Back In The Day, and I’ve got Gardner right there waiting for me…but I have no idea what Oprah is like.

I’m a little concerned that if Oprah comes to speak at Columbia, maybe Dr. Oz will show up in the audience . . . but I guess that’s a risk we’ll have to take.

And today we have the fourth-seeded magician, legendary codebreaker and Bayesian, martyr, the inventor of round-the-house chess, for chrissake!, competing against an unseeded mathematician, who’s famous for . . . getting really cold one time? Doesn’t seem close to me, but who knows, maybe you can get creative in the comment thread.

Again, the full bracket is here, and here are the rules:

We’re trying to pick the ultimate seminar speaker. I’m not asking for the most popular speaker, or the most relevant, or the best speaker, or the deepest, or even the coolest, but rather some combination of the above.

I’ll decide each day’s winner not based on a popular vote but based on the strength and amusingness of the arguments given by advocates on both sides. So give it your best!


  1. Great opening: “Yesterday, Martin Gardner seemed like he’d be sailing in on a gentle wave of nostalgia….”

  2. Kenda Clemons says:

    Many years ago I read The Ultra Secret. If Turing name was mentioned (it probably was), I don’t remember. The code breaking effort involved hundreds of people over many years, starting with Poland’s intelligence agency in the 1930s. It wasn’t a case of a single hero.

    It’s curious how people look back on historical events and tend to ascribe achievements of large groups to one or two individuals. I guess there is a psychological need for individual heroes. We can’t credit groups. Dozens of inventors worked on the phonograph? No, it’s a better story if that invention sprung from Thomas Edison’s brain unassisted. Thousands worked for women’s suffrage? Sounds better if we say Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton pulled it off by themselves.

    With regard to the breaking of Enigma, it seems a similar retro-story has formed. Alan Turing, using his giant intellect, broke the German code. He single-handedly shortened WWII by years and saved millions of lives. At least that is the short story many people now believe about the Ultra Project.

    • Phil says:

      Since you read The Ultra Secret many years ago, you’ve probably forgotten that the book idoes not contain any details about the machine nor how the deciphering was performed. It’s about what was learned and how the information was used.

      I share your general distaste for the ‘great man’ theory of just about anything: someone else would have come up with special relativity in a few years if Einstein didn’t, and with general relativity in a decade or two. But I have read several books about breaking Enigma and every single one of them says it wouldn’t have happened without Turing. They don’t really mean it wouldn’t _ever_ have happened — it’s not like, without Turing, people would still be using Enigma today. But it wouldn’t have happened during the war. There seems to have been no other single person of whom that can be said.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Your comment prompted me to look up The Ultra Secret. One review said that Turing was not mentioned at all in the book. The Wikipedia page on the book’s author (F.W. WInterbotham) says, “Winterbotham acknowledged in the book that he was no cryptologist and had only slight understanding of the cryptologic side of the multi-faceted and strictly compartmentalized Ultra operation” and that his involvement in Ultra was the distribution of Ultra intelligence. So it sounds like the book was not about the code-breaking, but about the use of the results — hence it should not be taken as saying anything about the code-breaking or Turing’s role in it.

    • Bob says:

      Well, movies like The Imitation Game give the picture of Turing alone breaking enigma. That clearly false. But I’ve read many of the relevant histories and they all credit Turing with the fundamental design of the bombe and several other very substantial contributions.

      Welchman contributed the diagonal board to the bombe. A fundamental insight came from the polish bomba developed by Rejewski. The bombe, like the bomba, used relationships between multiple enigma replicas running at slight offsets to solve for the key.

      Hugh Alexander wrote “It is always difficult to say that anyone is ‘absolutely indispensable’, but if anyone was indispensable to Hut 8, it was Turing. ” Hut 8 was the operation at Bletchley assigned to the naval messages. Alexander replaced Turing as leader of the group—Alexander was also twice British chess champion and a international master.


  3. Manuel says:

    I’m afraid Turing will want us to pass the Turing test before attending. Captchas anyone?

    • zbicyclist says:

      I think we should invite the inventor of the Captcha to lecture, so they could try and prove they weren’t a robot.

      • zbicyclist says:

        And to Kenda Clemons point above, even the Captcha has multiple parents:

        “The most common type of CAPTCHA (displayed as Version 1.0) was first invented in 1997 by two groups working in parallel. The first group consisted of Mark D. Lillibridge, Martin Abadi, Krishna Bharat, and Andrei Z. Broder; the second group consisted of Eran Reshef, Gili Raanan and Eilon Solan.” (

        I don’t know how many of the inventors were human, and how many were robots.

  4. Ethan Bolker says:

    Strange choice for me, here, since I’d not heard of David Blaine before today. Does that mean I think he should advance, so I can find out who he is?

  5. Martha (Smith) says:

    Andrew wrote: “… competing against an unseeded mathematician, who’s famous for . . . getting really cold one time?”

    Would I be correct that you meant “magician”, not “mathematician”?

  6. Jonathan (another one) says:

    OK. Here’s a Blaine seminar. He delivers the entire lecture locked inside a trunk with 40 minutes of air. He doesn’t get paid (or live) unless he solves the Entscheidungsproblem for a particular program (selected by the seminar participants) running on a Turing machine clacking away in the corner. If he turns this offer down, invite Turing. He can lecture on whatever he wants to.

  7. brianG says:

    Obviously Blaine is absurd. But that’s just the TV special stuff. I for one still love the mind blow of some first class sleight of hand. A room full of self satisfied smarties makes for easy pickins…

  8. gec says:

    Sure, Turing is rightly credited with many developments in the burgeoning fields of information theory and computer science (so unburgeoned were they that they did not have names at the time).

    But he was no eight-trick pony: Check out Turing’s paper on reaction-diffusion systems (“The Chemical Basis for Morphogenesis”). It is, like much of his writing, both a technical and communicatory tour de force. Seriously, highly recommended. Seems like he could talk with revealing insight about almost anything.

    In contrast, David Blaine is instantly outclassed by an old internet parody:

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