An Intricate Mind: Alan Turing 1912-1954

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Alan Turing Memorial, Sackville Gardens, Manchester: sculptor Glyn Hughes

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Here is the statue of man whose decoding of German Enigma Code is credited with shortening World War 2 by two years, and so saving thousands of lives. After the war, working in Manchester, he played a key role in developing ‘Baby’, the first digital computer. He had the brilliance of intellect and foresight that should have been considered a national treasure. Yet in 1952 he was charged with engaging in homosexual acts, tried and convicted of gross indecency. The penalty was prison or chemical castration through the administration of oestrogen. He chose the latter. But because homosexuals were considered security risks, he forfeited his security clearance. In 1954 he was found dead. At the inquest the coroner concluded he had committed suicide by taking potassium cyanide. He was forty two.

There have various theories about his death: that he staged it to look like an accident; that it was in fact an accident; that he was assassinated. In any event we can only guess at the scale of his future contributions to the domains of science, mathematics, and computer technology had he lived. In 1950, concluding his article in the journal Mind, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, he himself said:

We can see only a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.

 

In 2013 Turing was granted a royal pardon, and British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, expressed his regret at the way the eminent mathematician had been treated. Today, Turing’s great-niece, Rachel Barnes is lending her support to the campaign Turing’s Law that wishes to see 49,000 others given posthumous pardons. She says that while the Turing family was delighted by Alan Turning’s pardon, they felt it unfair that it was not extended to others similarly convicted.

Turing relative demands pardons for gay men convicted under outdated laws

And all I can say is: see where bigotry takes us. And if you want to see what kind of funny, humane man Alan Turing was, and discover something of his intricate thinking, then read the article Computing Machinery and Intelligence at the link above. It begins with the words:

I propose to consider the question, “Can machines think?”

Intricate

32 thoughts on “An Intricate Mind: Alan Turing 1912-1954

  1. Your take on this post is excellent, Trish. Meaningful and beautiful and also full of instruction.
    Thank you so much for this information.
    I had followed the story on TV but didn’t know all these details about him. I’ll surely read more from the link you shared.
    How far can stupidity go?
    Cheers.
    Lucile

    1. Hello, Lucile. Thank you for your comments. I’m v. pleased that there was some info that is new to you. And indeed – how far can stupidity go? Rather a long way it seems. 🙂

  2. Thanks for this Tish, Manchester’s memorial to Turing had passed me by. It got me scurrying to Google having worked briefly on MU5 at UMRCC in the early 1970s – a time when computers filled vast rooms and were cooled by water and liquid freon. Happy days 🙂

    1. Glad to be of assistance, Robin. It’s a splendid memorial and the gardens very pleasing in the heart of the city. Fascinating to hear of your earlier life 🙂

  3. I recently watched the movie about Alan Turing. What a brilliant mind. I’m so happy to know that there is this memorial to his memory. He was treated very shabbily indeed. So tragic.

  4. This story is one of the saddest I know, and a prime example of the terrible losses wrought by the tyranny of small, fearful minds. It is so incredibly ironic that Turing contributed as much as any single individual–and more than most–to protect his fellow Britons from dreadful, imminent tyranny only to be persecuted and ultimately executed by outrageous tyranny at home.

  5. A terribly sad example of “humanity’s” capacity to behave appallingly towards those perceived as different. And although persecution of homosexuals may be illegal in many places (albeit without the necessary pardons for those who were so cruelly treated in the past), there are still many countries where to be gay is to risk violence, discrimination and even death. Sometimes I just despair.

    1. Yes you are (sadly) so right, Su, about the continuing persecution. Why people should even be more than passingly interested (humans will always be nosy) in others’ sexuality is beyond me. What does it matter?

      1. I remember reading (a very long time ago, so the details are fuzzy) that we humans define ourselves in relation to the “otherness” of people who are not like us. We need difference (which we cognitively accentuate) to create cohesion within our group. It’s a depressing thought. Unless we have close contact with “others” we are able to dehumanise, and demonise, them. 🙂

  6. Human being are primitive. Shameful and proof of my continuing contention that we should not be deluded by advances in technology. Science may have advanced, but I’m not convinced people have. A great post, even though depressing.

    1. I think I agree with you. In fact in some ways our great pride in technology makes us more stupid, as our reliance upon it reduces an ability to access our own innate resources. It certainly doesn’t improve our powers of discretion, or remove the yen to be prejudiced.

  7. How desperately sad. I shudder over how society’s first response always seems to be to punish perceived wrongdoing. Surely at some point Turing must have wondered if his own Government’s attitude to homosexuality was much different to that of Nazi Germany.

  8. Just watched the Imitation Game with my kids (10 and 7) last week, and so glad my oldest daughter in particular connected with the film, the injustice of his mistreatment. We live in better times now, that kids can be exposed to that and see why it’s wrong. I heard he injected poison into an apple. But I may be repeating myth, here (sorry Tish!). I am glad on his memorial they included “victim of prejudice.” It’s funny, how those labels and tags define us, at the end of the day.

    1. Hi Bill. Must get to see this film ourselves. The apple and the cyanide story was not proven at the time. A colleague thought it was more likely that he had inhaled the cyanide as he was using it in a home lab on something he was working on. Apparently eating an apple before bedtime was a common habit. So it’s hard to know how much/ or what precisely was intentional.

  9. What a terrible loss. I wish bigotry was dead and long buried, but is seems that small-minded people can still find a reason to be hateful. I have little patience for it anymore and don’t tolerate fools gladly.. Michelle

    1. I agree with you on all points. I am definitely suffering from a lack of patience over small-mindedness. There’s so much of it about, though thankfully not among most fellow bloggers 🙂

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