Monthly Archives: March 2012

…And my love’s no secret anymore

The date, 7 June 1954. A man weathered by the trials of life sits down by his bed to indulge the forbidden fruit. There is a feeling of faint nervousness; he has handled cyanide before and knows the toxicity will certainly become unbearable. He picks up the apple and takes several quick bites – he never wants to see the sight of another needle – and resumes lying down on the bed.  Doris Day’s Secret Love fades away on the radio and all of a sudden; there is nothing.

We can only speculate on the manner of Alan Turing’s death. Aged just 41, the wartime code-breaker and computer scientist committed a lonely suicide two years after his conviction for ‘gross indecency’ for engaging in homosexual acts (in private).

Turing lived a life of communication, characterised by his invaluable service to British Technology research, and to the Government during the War. An eccentric character by all accounts he adopted the mathematic and scientific tradition in a time where fellow academics Wittgenstein and Russell were flourishing and developing their publicly controversial theories at Cambridge (Turing’s Alma Mata and theirs).  Turing developed his maths skills graduating with a first class honours from Cambridge at the age of 21. Synthesising his colossal understanding of mathematics with computer technology, Turing developed ‘Turing Machines’ which could perform any possible mathematic computation as an algorithm and produced many important papers in the development of computer science before the breakout of the War.

Wartime. In 1939 at the outbreak of WWII, Turing positioned himself at Bletchley Park for work decrypting German ciphers, secretly developing the technology used and anticipating further actions for deciphering the Enigma code.  One of the most important machines developed was done so within weeks of his arrival at Bletchley Park named the Turing-Welchman Bombe, which looked for contradictions in German logical Enigma messages and could then be explored in more detail.  About his time at Bletchley  Park, fellow cryptanalyst Hugh Alexander wrote ‘Turing’s work was the biggest factor in Hut 8’s success…many of us in Hut 8 felt that the magnitude of Turing’s contribution was never fully realized by the outside world’. [1] Post-War in London, Turing significantly helped in the early development of computers, known back then as the developing Automatic Computing Engine, on which a lot of later machines were modelled. The computers he worked on were among the first to store programs and even blurred the lines between science and fiction when he designed the Turing Test which aimed to test for artificial intelligence if it bore certain similarities with Humans.

Alan Turing’s career came to a halt just when it was flourishing. A conviction for indecency in 1952 after admitting a homosexual affair meant that he was to undergo hormone injections to destroy his libido and/or attempt to turn him into a Woman (this perhaps being an undesired outcome) – through the growth of breasts. Needless to say, this pitiful fall from grace led to his dismissal from his cryptographic consultancy. We can scarcely imagine the tattered ruins of Turing’s life at the time of his death in 1954.

This year 2012 has officially been designated the Alan Turing Year, marking 100 years since his birth. Is there much we can learn from the story? Suppositions of the past are simply that and it is naturally hard now to make sense of how a generation could be so cruel to a man who made an invaluable contribution to the War effort (even Gordon Brown apologised on behalf of the Government for the whole affair in 2009).  I believe there are two areas in which Turing made a considerable advancement: the development of computer technology and the struggle for LGBT rights.  A little over a decade after Turing’s death, homosexuality was legalised and I think in part through the openness of the likes of Turing which stressed the fact that gay people were normal people in society and of course, contributed massively. A classic English oddity who should have lived for double his lifetime and would probably now be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts should be remembered this year – his story and his love, never to be a secret – his name, honoured!