June 23, 1912 – Alan Turing:
“Science is a differential equation. Religion is a boundary condition.“
Turning was a British cryptanalyst who saved the world from Fascism during World War II. I have to be honest, because his contribution is outside of the subjects of the arts and literature, I would not have known of his life but for the play and film, Breaking The Code. That’s right, Turing saved the world from the Nazis. And, his importance to the modern world with his mathematical, philosophical, and cryptographic work cannot be overestimated.
A once-in-a-generation gifted mathematician, Turing was one of the founders of the new field of Computer Science. The Turing Machine was an abstract device that consisted of an infinite paper tape and a reading device that could move forwards and backwards altering what is on the tape. Despite its simplicity, it remains the prototype for all actions that can be performed by today’s computers. It is amazing that Turing invented his machine before computers as we know them even existed.
His most significant accomplishment was responsible for cracking the “unbreakable” German codes during WW II. Given the limited resources the British possessed, having precise knowledge of Germany’s intentions allowed the British intelligence to concentrate their resources so that they could achieve battle superiority and eventually prevail against those damn Nazis. Turing’s contribution to the Allied victory over the Nazis in the greatest of wars ranks as high as anyone else, even Winston Churchill or Dwight D. Eisenhower.
He may have been the most brilliant scientist of his generation (plus basically saving everyone on this planet), yet Turing was discarded and deemed a security risk because of his queerness. We must remember him now not only for his work with computers and deciphering the Enigma Machine codes during WW II, but also because of his needless, horrific death during an age of institutionalized homophobia. He committed suicide when he was just 41 years old, two years after his arrest, conviction, and forced chemical castration for his gayness. Now Turing is both a Gay Hero and a Gay Martyr.
After the war, Turing had dared to open the closet door just a crack, but it was also the start of a time when there was a change from conveniently ignoring queer people to active persecution of them in Britain. After his pioneering work in computers, software design, and artificial intelligence, Turing was elected a Fellow Of The Royal Society at an unusually young age of 22. This should have been the best time of his life, living life as a true war hero and respected researcher, but instead, in 1948, Turing’s life became especially difficult.
He had moved to Manchester after accepting a position as Deputy Director at the Royal Society’s Computing Laboratory at the University Of Manchester. He became involved with a young working-class bloke who would later break into his home. Turing reported the burglary, but he was arrested and prosecuted for what was then known under British law as “Gross Indecency”, the same law under which Oscar Wilde had also been charged in 1895. During this ordeal, Turning remained defiantly open and unapologetic about his gayness. After the trial, Turing was offered a very bleak choice: significant prison time or submit to the administration of estrogen, intended to suppress his libido.
This treatment left Turing impotent. He developed breasts. His security clearances were revoked and he was unable to resume his pioneering work in the new field of Computer Science. Two years after his arrest and one year after this barbaric torture therapy, Turing could stand it no longer and took his own life.
He left no suicide note and the circumstances of his death were inadequately investigated and left deliberately murky. It is thought that he committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide. Turing probably drank the cyanide and just left the apple on his bedside table. It was a grim joke against his reputation for being impractical. It is also a little breadcrumb for those who wanted to believe that he had taken the poison by mistake. Turing probably knew that the apple was the symbol of death from the Snow White story.
It has also been rumored that he was murdered by his own government. How far-fetched is that? A civilized nation doesn’t bump-off its own citizens, right?
Turning’s story is tragic, but there are some twists that despite everything, I like to think Turing would find comedic, or at least ironic, or that he might enjoy: The London 2012 Olympic Torch flame was passed off in front of Turing’s statue in Manchester on his 100th birthday. On Christmas Eve 2013, Queen Elizabeth II signed a pardon for Turing’s conviction for gross indecency. Turing’s pardon was unusual in that pardons are normally only granted when the person is technically innocent, and a request has been made by a family member. Neither condition was met regarding Turing’s original conviction. Turing’s royal pardon is one of the positive things provoked by that new-fangled Internet thing. Turing fans started an online campaign compelling Prime Minister Gordon Brown to make an official public apology on behalf of the British government for the way in which Turing had been treated after the war. The pardons sent Religious Right-Wing Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic into apoplexy.
Fittingly, tributes continue in a most lovely way; many computer conference centers, research labs and university facilities are named for Turing. I lost track counting at 51.
Although the company has denied it, Steve Jobs, when queried, stated: “God, we wish it were true“, but I doubt that it is pure coincidence that Jobs named his new company “Apple”.
Breaking The Code (1986) is play by Hugh Whitemore about Turing. The play ran in London’s West End and on Broadway. In both these productions Turing was played by out actor Derek Jacobi. The Broadway production was nominated for three Tony Awards and two Drama Desk Awards. Turing was again portrayed by Jacobi in the 1996 television film adaptation of Breaking The Code.
Turing’s story was told in The Imitation Game (2014), a somewhat pedestrian film about an extraordinary man. It is a good film; don’t get me wrong, you should see it. It was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. Graham Moore‘s Oscar nominated screenplay had been kicking around Hollywood for years and the story deserved to be told. Norwegian director Morten Tyldum‘s cast, including my boo Benedict Cumberbatch (Oscar nominated), whose performance was vulnerable, compelling, and persuasive, plus the rest: Mark Strong, Keira Knightley (Oscar nominated), Charles Dance, and yummy Matthew Goode are uniformly wonderful. I am not certain why I ended up thinking the whole thing played a little flat. But, having audiences experience Turing’s amazing story is a good thing.