December 18, 2012

Alan Turing – My Geeky Hero

We all have celebrity heroes, from baseball stars, to actors, to politicians.  It’s a guilty secret, but I have them too, you don’t even want to get me started on Tommy Lee Jones or Vin Diesel.  However, with that said, I have heroes of the mind as well, my geeky heroes.  Benjamin Franklin, Oscar Wilde, and Nicola Tesla are just a few of these heroes of the mind for me. My favorite, though, is back in the news now although he has been gone for almost 60 years. His name is Alan Turing.

A short synopsis of his life from the BBC:

Turing was born in 1912 in London where he lived with family and friends until his parents returned from civil service in India in 1926.  He studied mathematics at Cambridge University and later returned to teach there. It was at Cambridge that he made his first amazing mathematical discovery, called the Turing machine.  If you have ever used a computer, you need to send up a silent thank you to Turing.

Turing spent some time at Princeton University before returning to England to work in the Government Code and Cypher school part time, and secretly.  We’ve had secret spies, but secret mathematicians? Wow.   When World War II broke out, Alan Turning went to work for the cryptanalytic department full time at Bletchley Park.  This is the work he is most famous for, creating a machine that could defeat the German Enigma machine at its own game.  His “bombe” decrypted German communiqués, giving the Allies a leg up in the war.  His work with Bletchley Park was kept secret until 1972.

After the war, Turing turned his attention almost completely to the development of a computational machine that would logically process information.  That’s a mouthful to say, “the first computers.”  He worked for the National Physical Laboratory from ’45 – ’48 designing his machine.  Unfortunately, his lab missed the contract that time.  Turing moved on to Manchester University in ’49, directing their computing laboratory and developing work that would lead to Artificial Intelligence.  In 1951, Alan Turning was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, one of the highest honors to be given to a scientist in the UK.

When you think of Alan Turing, think John Nash of “A Beautiful Mind,” but without the paranoid schizophrenia.

This is where Turing’s life takes a turn for the worse.  Like my other hero of the mind, Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing was gay.  Being gay in the UK at this time was a criminal offense.  In 1952, Turing was arrested and tried for the crime of homosexuality, termed “gross indecency.”  Rather than go to jail, he accepted chemical castration for a year.  He also lost his job, his security clearance, and his standing in society.

June 7, 1954, Alan Turing committed suicide with a cyanide-poisoned apple.

Back in the news:

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of Alan Turing’s birth, and to celebrate, people have been calling for him to be pardoned posthumously.  In February of this year, 23,000 people signed a petition asking the House of Lords to issue a pardon for Turing.

While the UK is celebrating his life with events and even a Royal Mail postage stamp, Justice Minister Lord McNally refused the pardon.

A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence,” McNally told the BBC.

“It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd, particularly… given his outstanding contribution to the war effort,” he said.

“However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times.”

This summer, Lord Sharkey, a liberal Democrat peer, introduced a private member’s bill in the House of Lords, once again attempting to grant Turing an official pardon. Once again, this was rejected.

Now, the scientific community is joining the fray.  Professor Stephen Hawking, Astronomer Royal Lord Rees and the Royal Society’s Sir Paul Nurse along with 8 other leading British scientists have signed an open letter to the Daily Telegraph urging Prime Minister David Cameron to “formally forgive this British hero”.

“We write in support of a posthumous pardon for Alan Turing, one of the most brilliant mathematicians of the modern era,” said the letter.

“He led the team of Enigma codebreakers at Bletchley Park, which most historians agree shortened the Second World War.”

“Yet successive governments seem incapable of forgiving his conviction for the then crime of being a homosexual, which led to his suicide, aged 41.”

Not everyone is on board, however.

Martin Robbins, who writes “The Lay Scientist” blog for The Guardian wonders whether we have the right to pardon Turning.  Robbins doesn’t question the obvious fact that Turing “deserves anything less than a full pardon and a groveling apology.”  What Robbins does question is why just Turing? What will a pardon after his death really do? And who, in the current political climate of homophobic policies and behaviors has the right to pardon him?

These are all very good questions.  Tens of thousands were convicted of being homosexual, including Oscar Wilde.  What makes Turing special or more deserving of a pardon than any of the others?

The answer to that one is simple.  He isn’t.  However, he could be a symbol that the times are changing, and that at least the government recognizes that such gross injustice can’t be tolerated. This also answers the question of what a pardon will do at this late point.  It might give heart to those still struggling with hatred for what they are.  Robbins, however, sees Turing’s conviction as a stain on Britain and the pardon would only be a “self serving act.”

Robbins really hits home with his third question, though.  Who, in the current government, has earned the right to pardon Alan Turing?  I won’t give his list of examples for why the answer is “no one” but I can tell you they are compelling.

Robbins suggests that instead of pardoning Alan Turing, who would never know nor benefit from it, the government instead asks what they can do to make life better for gay people in the UK today.

I think Turing would approve.

Image Credit: Christos Georghiou / Shutterstock

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