- Tuesday, 10 January 2012
- Written by phinea
We can sometimes forget how far we’ve come in LGBT equality and how dreadful things were for gay people in the recent past. Alan Turing’s case exemplifies all those people whose productive lives were curtailed because of irrational prejudice.
Alan Turing was a British hero but he was treated abominably by the state. This is the man who helped crack the Nazi wartime code Enigma at Station X in Bletchley Park, thus playing a crucial part in winning the war; this is the man who they say invented computers and who ended his life at 41 by taking cyanide after being hounded by the British state.Alan Turing had the misfortune to be gay at a time when homosexuality was still a criminal offence in the UK.
He was a major player in cracking the enigma code which shortened the second world war by an estimated two years, thus saving thousands of lives. You may have seen the film of the Robert Harris book Enigma where Turing’s pivotal role was conveniently painted out.
After the war, he continued his pioneering work on computers and created a test for artificial intelligence which is still used today. The test in the 1982 film Blade Runner to decide whether an individual is human or a robot “replicant” is based on the Turing test. Who knows what he might have done had he lived.
Steve Wozniak(co-founder of Apple) credits Turing with planting the seed (in his 1936 work on a theoretical computing machine) from which all future research on computing has grown.
Turing, meanwhile, continued to generate ideas. In the 1950s, he began exploring the mathematical underpinnings of patterns that occur in nature – the reason tigers have stripes – helping to shape the new field of morphogenesis.
In 1952, he was found in his own home by the police with another man. He was convicted of an act of gross indecency. He was given the choice of a prison sentence or chemical castration by an implant of female hormones. It’s hard to believe that this is within living memory. Fearing prison, Turing chose chemical castration, but underestimated the dreadful effects it would have on him. He grew breasts, had erectile dysfunction and, perhaps most terribly, felt his brain was unable to work in the way it had before. He was even forbidden to travel abroad as the government thought that a gay man in possession of top secrets was a security risk. The life of this genius had simply become intolerable.
This year, 2012, sees the centenary of his birth and has been designated Alan Turing Year, with an international programme organised by a committee of scientists and others chaired by Prof Barry Cooper of the School of Mathematics at the Leeds University. He says:
‘A pardon from the Government in the centenary year of Turing's birth would be warmly welcomed by his family, friends, colleagues and those in the scientific community who have benefitted from the foundations he laid.’
Turing did not leave a suicide note. He was found with a half-eaten apple by his bed. It is believed to have been the method by which the fatal dose of cyanide was delivered. It has been speculated that Turing chose it because of his love of the 1937 Walt Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which he went to see several times. (It has also been suggested that the apple with the bite taken from it was the inspiration for the design of the Apple computer logo, although its creator denies it.)
Many years later, honours have been piled on him, including statues, the annual Turing award which is computing equivalent of a Nobel, and the widely-used title of the Father of Computing. A previous e-petition prompted an official apology from the then UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown in September 2009. He said:
‘Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him.
So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better.’
But the conviction still stands. Alan Turing deserves a pardon; frankly he deserves a bloody posthumous knighthood for all he did for Britain. The link to the e-petition is here.