06/23/2012

Alan Turing: a homosexual genius

Alan Turing, born June 23 1912, was a mathematical genius, the modern founder of computer technology, the man who did most to ensure the defeat of Hitler's Germany and ... a homosexual.

This newspaper, like others all over the world, recognises his genius and relates his life. To me, a mathematician and computer scientist, his life is fascinating, inspiring and tragic. His work in Bletchley Park, whose task was to break the German Military Enigma codes, is something that I can hardly rate high enough. Although Britain was saved from invasion by the Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft of the RAF in 1941, it could later have been defeated without the ability of Bletchley Park analysts to extract secret information to counter the U-boat destruction of the Atlantic convoys, which Winston Churchill described as the only thing that really frightened him.

Turing's work in the development of computers is second to none: the only other comparable person who could be said perhaps to have foreseen and developed computers was, in the opinion of many, Charles Babbage. After the war, Turing continued with his ideas, already in his mind before the war, to create the first computer. This computer, the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE), was constructed at the National Physical Laboratory, in Teddington, Middlesex. The choice of the descriptor "Engine" is said to be a homage to Charles Babbage's Difference Engine and Analytical Engine.

Turing's life turned to tragedy when he refused to hide his homosexuality after the war: during the war this was known to many of his colleagues, but they were interested more in his work than his leisure activities. In 1952, having been convicted of indecent practices, he was subjected to chemical castration. When, on June 7 1954, he was found dead of cyanide poisoning in his room next to an apple, it was widely assumed that he had committed suicide. However, recent studies have suggested that there was no proof that the apple contained cyanide, and that it might have been an accidental exposure as part of some experiments that he was performing.

This history raises a fundamental question of whether what is perceived as unacceptable in a person should be tolerated if that person has good qualities. There is a school of thought that says that Germany might have been the first to develop the atomic bomb if they had not eliminated some brilliant German Jews. In the USA, Robert Oppenheimer was the son of wealthy Jewish parents, whilst another Jew, Lew Kowarski, fled to Britain at the start of the war with the entire world stock of heavy water (he later came to Geneva to work in CERN).

I do feel to have been distantly connected in several ways with Alan Turing. As a mathematics student at London University, I spent the Summer vacation in 1962 working in the National Physical Laboratory (their current Web site is very informative), where I met people who had worked for and with Alan Turing: one of these for whom I worked (Mike Woodger) gives a commentary about Alan Turing in a BBC report on his life. At that time, the ACE machine was still there, though it was supplanted by DEUCE, and there was pioneering work on computer languages, in particular ALGOL, and on computers communicating over networks by a method called packet-switching, which is now fundamental to the Internet and the World-Wide Web which originated in CERN. It also happens that the 23 June, today as I write this, is the birthday of my wife.

Thankfully, Alan Turing has posthumously been pardoned by the British Government of any offence, with consenting acts in private between consenting adults no longer considered as a criminal offence. However, in other parts of the world things are very different: in Mali the parents of a child born out of wedlock have been recently flogged for their "crime". The idiocy of this type of punishment is demonstrated by the fact that in some countries, which claim not to tolerate homosexuality, powerful men go around in public accompanied by their catamites. A flagrant example of the principle of "Do as I say, not as I do"!

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