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Man of great compute

Imagine choosing to undergo chemical castration by oestrogen injection. That was how much Alan Turing didn't want to go to prison in 1952, having been convicted of gross indecency as a practising homosexual. Now imagine being handed this choice by the regime you had saved, almost single-handedly, from the Nazi war machine. Small wonder Turing killed himself two years later.

The Leader of the Commons, Sir George Young, has said he will now reconsider whether the celebrated pioneer of computing deserves to remain under the shadow of the conviction. But he has also said it is hard to see how a pardon can be granted, because there is no precedent. How ironic: thanks to Turing's pioneering mathematical work, we can now prove that it is really hard to do some things, yet issuing a pardon for him is not one of them.

Turing came up with the framework for the modern digital computer in 1937-38. This vision is the basis of every computer ever built, from those assembled at the end of the Second World War to the supercomputers humming away to support the internet. He did even more than that. He also gave us the framework for thinking about the computer's limitations. He showed that it was impossible to say in advance whether a given program would go on for ever, or come to an end and spit out a result.

Subsequent research has shown that this fundamental roadblock is closely related to the question of whether there might be quick solutions to certain "hard" mathematical processes. In this context, hard doesn't mean "quite difficult"; it means there is no known way to solve the problem in a reasonable time.

We now know, for instance, that the console games Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros, Donkey Kong and The Legend of Zelda are all mathematically hard. Thanks to Turing, we have an excuse for all those years of trying and failing to complete them.

We rely on some things being hard. For instance, there is no mathematical routine for finding a large number's "factors" - two numbers that, multiplied together, would give your large number. All you can do is start from two times two and begin the arduous process of finding the factors by trial and error. It is the mathematical hardness of doing this with truly giant numbers (composed of more than 1,000 binary digits) that guarantees the security of financial transactions on the internet.

Hard luck

It's good to know what's hard. When your internet shopping is being despatched, the courier doing the delivery tries to find the most fuel- and time-efficient route - but it knows not to waste effort trying to find a route where the driver will pass each delivery point only once. We know, thanks to Turing's initial work, that this, too, is uncomputable.

As is the map-labelling problem. Fitting words on to a GPS map might seem like a trivial matter, but it is not. Maps that work at varying scales cannot be labelled consistently without the labels overlapping at some scales or being in the wrong place at others.

Google didn't waste resources trying and failing to achieve this. It knew from work that can be traced back to Turing that dynamic digital mapping requires fudges and compromises.

In 2009, Gordon Brown issued an apology for the way Turing was treated in the years following the Second World War. Turing cracked the Nazis' Enigma codes and placed Britain at the centre of the computing revolution. Nonetheless, the prospects for a pardon remain poor.

Clearly, we should add "getting Britain to show appropriate gratitude" to the list of things that are unfathomably hard.

Sign an e-petition to have Alan Turing pardoned at:

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, France is my enemy

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide