the inspiration behind Viccy Adams’ short story, ‘G(in) & T(uring)’
I’ve had the joy of spending the last year as the writer-in-residence at the School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh, funded by The Leverhulme Trust. Before my residency at Informatics I was vaguely aware that Alan Turing had something to do with computers and with code breaking at Bletchley Park. I’ve been fortunate that my residency has coincided with the centenary of Turing’s birth, and to have been invited to participate in some of Informatics’ activities to mark and celebrate Turing’s work.
I attended the T100 research symposium and during the lunch break had the pleasure of talking with someone who had worked with Turing at Manchester University. Halfway through the next presentation he tapped me on the shoulder to point out that he was standing next to Turing in one of the photos on the presenter’s slideshow.
Taking part in the Twit-Test schools project let me flex my creative muscles in a different direction, pitting myself against the wit of school children across the Lothians and further afield in pretending to be variously a teacher, student, celebrity and twit-bot. It inspired me to learn more about the original Turing Test.
This tied in with a mixture of conversations I was having with researchers based at Informatics about the meanings and values of human and artificial life. I’ve spent part of the last year researching a novel about a cleaner who makes friends with a robot, inspired by the architecture of the Informatics Forum. Everyone I spoke to about my novel knew someone else who was writing about Turing, I wanted to reach out and find out more; what were they writing, what pulled them into the subject, what aspect of Turing’s life were they unwrapping.
Micha Elsner, a post-doc at Informatics, sent me a story he had written, inspired by a teatime chat we’d had about a side-project I was working on involving old folk-songs. He’d used the Turing Test as a way of re-telling a trope of sibling rivalry. I loved the story. I also saw the seed of an opportunity to mix together two sets of voices that don’t have enough chances to share ideas; writers who use science as inspiration for their creative work, and scientists who use creative writing as a way of thinking through their work…. and so the idea for this anthology began to unfurl.
There is an appealing richness of texture in Turing’s life and work for a writer to draw upon. The resonances of opportunity and discomfort in a world adapting to digitisation looks to Turing’s time to see how and where those seeds were sown.
For my story, ‘G(in) & T(uring)’, the inspiration was Chapter 6 of Andrew Hodge’s biography. Jon Oberlander had recommended the book to me, and picked out the detail of Turing chaining his mug to the table at Bletchley Park so it couldn’t be borrowed (which provided the initial inspiration for the anthology title).
In Chapter 6, ‘Mercury Delayed’, Hodges goes into detail about Turing’s plans for fixing issues of storage speed and capacity for his universal machine. Based on his own calculations, Turing considered a mixture of water and alcohol with the same strength as gin as a viable, cheaper alternative to mercury for an acoustic delay line. As soon as I read that paragraph I knew I wanted to write something about it.
- Posted in: Inspiration behind the work