Saturday, June 23, 2012

Alan Turing: the cost of bigotry

Today is the 100 year anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing - mathematician, computer pioneer, World War II code-breaker, and convicted criminal (for his homosexuality).

An article in the Atlantic, with the very personal title of Alan Turing Saved My Life, explains just how important Turing was to the war effort:
"I won't say that what Turing did made us win the war," his statistical clerk, Jack Good, told me later, as I was researching a book that would be the first history of artificial intelligence, called Machines Who Think, "but I daresay we might have lost it without him."

I interviewed Good in the mid-1970s, when the Official Secrets Act still silenced many. Only decades later were Turing's associates, and then, historians of computing, mathematics, and cryptography, able to reveal in detail how crucial Turing's contribution had been to the war effort, to the ultimate Allied victory, and to hungry babies like me, born into what then looked like a losing effort.

So, how did Britain treat this war hero?
But he was also homosexual, which in his time in England was a punishable offense. A brief liaison in January 1952 with a common criminal brought this to light, and both he and the other man were charged with gross indecency.

Convicted, Turing had to choose between prison, or "chemical castration," injections of estrogen, then thought to kill the homosexual libido. He accepted chemical castration; his conviction and punishment were public, degrading, and lost him his security clearance.

He was found dead of cyanide poisoning on June 8, 1954, his death ruled a suicide, though Turing's mother protested that it was accidental, and the consequence of her son's carelessness with laboratory materials. He was 42 years old.

Turing's homosexuality, and the tragic circumstances of his death, were known and spoken of among the people I interviewed for my book, but several of his colleagues were dismayed that I would say it in print. For me, who owed my very life to Turing's work, this petty delicacy was unconscionable.

A man who had saved his country had been hounded to death by it.

Today is a good day to remember Alan Turing, and to remember what bigotry costs us:
Three years after Turing's death, the Wolfenden Report was published in 1957, recommending that homosexuality be decriminalized in the U.K., though it took another ten years to change the law. Honors were eventually heaped upon Alan Turing's shade: the highest award in computer science is the Turing Prize; plaques appear on buildings where he lived and worked, a road is named for him. Two biographies have appeared, a play, and at least two films. In 2009, Gordon Brown, on behalf of the British government, formally apologized for its treatment of Turing, "one of those individuals ... whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war." On the 100th anniversary of his birth, elaborate tributes and celebrations have been held in San Francisco, London, Cambridge, and Manchester.

Of course we will never know what Turing might have contributed to human knowledge if allowed to live out his natural life, surely our very great loss. This is the cost of human bigotry.

1 comment:

Muthu Pearl said...

nice quote and article of Alan Turing . Thanks for sharing this with us.