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A fitting tribute to Turing

What happens when you bring together some of the biggest names in science, technology, and entrepreneurship, then build a massive three-day event around them? You get the Turing Festival, Edinburgh's International Technology Festival.

Held during the world famous Edinburgh Fringe festival in Scotland, UK, the Turing Festival 2012 featured inspirational science, collaborative technology, and human inventiveness. Conceived to demonstrate the effect of digital technologies and the web, the festival hopes to show how they complement and augment human ingenuity. This year's theme was 'Digital Everywhere' and the topics covered almost every facet of modern life.

The festival is named after Alan Turing, the man many consider the father of modern computing. Without his pioneering work, both practical and theoretical, the world we live in would be a very different place. With 2012 being the centenary of his birth, it was particularly fitting that the line up at this year's festival had some modern pioneers from the world of computing; Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple Inc) and Eben Upton (co-creator of the Raspberry Pi).

However, the most exciting thing for me this year was that I got to take part. Last year, I watched the Turing Festival from afar, by following the live online streams and reading the tweets. I was genuinely impressed by what I had seen.

CMS spokesperson elect Tejinder 'Jim' Virdee in the CMS cavern in 2006.
CMS co-founder and former spokesperson, physicist Tejinder 'Jim' Virdee, who was one of the speakers at the Turing Festival this year, watched the 'touch-down' of the first endcap disk lowered into the UXC55 cavern, 100m below the CMS surface hall in CERN, Cessy, France, back in 2006. The disk is about 15 meters high and weighs around 400 tonnes. It took around 10 hours to be lowered. Image courtesy Maximilien Brice & Claudia Marcelloni, CERN.

So, when early this year, the organizers contacted me about putting together a session on the world of particle physics I didn't need a second invitation. The result was 'CERN: Big Questions, Big Science, Big Technology', a peek into a world that not many people see. In three hours, the four speakers were able to weave a complex story that covered the engineering, the computing, the theory, and the practical issues of building a machine that is its own prototype.

First proposed in the early 80's, the Large Hadron Collider smashes particles together at almost the speed of light. The technology needed to do this, and to understand the results is cutting edge science and a massive step up from its predecessors. This has meant every single component would have been science fiction only 20 years ago. For example, the grid computing element has been an important foundation.

"I have been lucky enough to have been involved in the growth of grid technology from a greenfield idea in the late 90's to a global tool that helped deliver the Higgs boson in 2012," said David Britton, GridPP project leader, who spoke at the CERN session. "It was great to be able to present this in context at the Turing Festival alongside such excellent presentations on the LHC machine and experiments by Jim Virdee; a theoretical perspective from John Ellis; and a bit of CERN's computing history from Ben Segal."

Bringing science and computing together

We weren't the only show in town, however, with other sessions showing the diverse impact that technology has had on our lives, including: 'Music Hack Day Scotland', 'Future Medicine', 'Aligning interests: Entrepreneurs & Investors' and 'Gaming Futures'. There really was something for everyone. However, the standout event had to be the keynote speech by Steve Wozniak and Helen Arney (comedian, singer, songwriter, and self-confessed geek). They talked about the early days, motivations, and love of technology.

The festival was the brainchild of one man, Jamie Coleman, and has been a lot of hard work, but ultimately worth it for him. "Putting on the Turing Festival in Edinburgh, in the middle of the International Festival and Fringe, was an utterly mad idea but it brought together the cream of the world's creative talent with science and computing in an unprecedented way," said Jamie, who holds the title festival director. "From NASA to Music Hack, from the BBC Mashup to Security and Freedom, being able to spend the day with the top scientific and business minds before heading out to the Fringe to party, with comedians and artists, was amazing."

Only in its 2nd year, the Turing festival has grown massively since 2011 and while still recovering from this year, the plan for 2013 is already being discussed.

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