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Guest Editorial

Alan Turing and the Five Sigma Theory of Progress
by Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute
from Huffington Post, used by permission

Maybe it's something in the stout, but what's up with this burst of biopics about British boffins?

Trundle down to the local cineplex and you can enjoy a brief history of iconic physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. If your stamina is adequate, you can also savor the tormented life of mathematician Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, a compelling film about the efforts to break German codes during the Second World War.

Both men can be rightfully described as geniuses, and therefore by definition are highly exceptional. Stories about exceptional people have always titillated the public, as recognized by writers from Shakespeare to People Magazine.

But Turing and Hawking are scientists, and as stars in movies they're as uncommon as Swiss admirals. That's particularly true in America where, with our rough-and-tumble frontier past, we generally prefer the broad-shouldered to the brainy.

So as a researcher myself, I'm naturally pleased to see practitioners of science nailing lead roles in these well-made, popular films. It's a definite improvement over the time, almost yesterday, when scientists were bumbling accessories to the plot, and invariably unattractive, socially primitive, and obliged to wear white lab coats to every occasion.

Both of these brilliant Britons suffer massive personal challenges -- and that makes for interesting characters. But the larger story is what these prodigies bring to the table at which the rest of us sit.

In the newer of these film, The Imitation Game, Turing's task is no less than changing the course of war. He joins a small group of academics recruited for the Government Code and Cypher School (a clumsy name requiring two lines on the rugby jerseys). They've been brought together to break the codes used by the Nazi military, encrypted by a machine known as Enigma.

Enigma, originally developed during World War I, is said to be as impregnable as the Titanic, and indeed its combination of wheels and cable jacks allow it to generate between one and a thousand billion billion different codes, depending on the model you buy. That latter figure is comparable to the number of grains of dry sand on all the beaches of Earth.

Traditional cryptographic analysis isn't going to work anytime soon, and Turing opts to unravel the Engima codes by building a machine based on a Polish invention known as a "bombe," an electromechanical computer. In the film, other members of his group are unconvinced by Turing's calculated approach, but the facts are, he can do without those guys.

However, they can't do without him, and that's because Turing is smarter. He's a five sigma event. And indeed, this film bends its knee at what I call the five sigma theory of human progress.

Now before you wince at the Greek, think back to that statistics course you took in college (or not). In statistics, a five sigma event is something incredibly unusual. A canonical example can be found in the statistics of human IQ. By definition, average IQ is 100. The standard deviation -- a measure of the spread of this value -- is about 15 IQ points. Roughly 68 percent of the population will fall between plus and minus one sigma from the average.

In other words, two-thirds of the folks in a random sample of Homo sapiens will have IQs between 85 and 115, and 95 percent will have IQs within two sigma of the mean. If you have a three-sigma intellect (IQ of 145, on the positive side of the mean) you can rightly put "exceptionally clever" on your business card. You're one in many hundred, and probably the envy of the lout in the next cube.

But at five sigma, you humble 99.99997 percent of the population. When it came to mathematics -- particularly the mathematics of computation -- Alan Turing was a five sigma event.

You could argue that, when all is said and done, it is the five sigma people who make the big advances. Consider an example from another discipline, music. There have been thousands and thousands of composers since musical notation gave durability to the work of these creative tunesmiths. But a millennium from now, most of their stuff will be unplayed and unremembered. Not so for five sigma composers like Beethoven, Mozart or the Beatles. The truly exceptional matter. And the situation is similar for other artists and the practitioners of any field from philosophy to physics.

This may explain our deep attraction to the brilliant outliers who, in the words of the Turing film, can do things no one can imagine. But the brutal flip side of this reductionist idea is the implication that if you're not at the five sigma level, your efforts, while admirable and even useful, will never be fodder for future memory or future textbooks -- that most of us are no more than worker bees. Essential and functional, yes. But transformative, no. We are merely plug-and-play parts in the machine.

That's simultaneously discouraging and myopic. In truth, there are millions and millions of things that humans do, and that means that most of us are five sigma practitioners at something, even if it's only caring for our garden or our cats.

The real human story isn't the lone runner, it's the race. Fifty thousand people participated in the New York Marathon this year. No doubt only a handful thought they had a chance of coming in first. But they still showed up. We don't all have to be five sigma events in the arts or sciences. The name of the game isn't "winner" -- it's "game."

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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