Monday, June 25, 2012

Reflecting on Alan Turning on the Celebration of What Would Have Been His 100th Birthday

Would Have Been Had Society Not Driven Him to Suicide

Only a few people know of Alan Turing and even less know of the tragic circumstances of his life.  Here is what he did.

In 1936, when he was a student at Cambridge, he attended a lecture in which M.H.A. “Max” Newman characterized an old and thorny logic problem as a matter of finding a “mechanical process” for testing the validity of a mathematical assertion. Turing took the phrase “mechanical process” at face value and wrote a paper in which he laid out the architecture of a hypothetical machine to do the testing — what became known as the “Turing machine.” The paper, intended for specialists, amounted to a blueprint for the modern computer, a “universal machine” that could do the work of an infinity of single-use machines.

Okay, so he invented the machine that has ultimately lead to the ability to play Angry Birds on a smart phone.  Uh, no, he developed a machine that while it may not have been solely responsible for winning World War II, it was instrumental in saving huge amounts of lives and heavily contributed to the winning of that war.

During World War II, Turing was among a group of thinkers summoned by the British government to Bletchley Park to help crack the seemingly airtight German Enigma code. Because the code was generated by a machine, Turing decided, only a machine could break it. He went on to design and help build that machine — the “Bombe,” without which the Allies might have lost the war — thereby instigating a huge leap forward in the field of cryptanalysis.

And here is how he was treated after that momentous accomplishment.

He made little effort to disguise or efface his desire for other men, and when, in the early 1950s, he embarked on a businesslike affair with a youth in Manchester, his sense of how the world should be clashed with how it was.

Suspecting his boyfriend of robbery, he summoned the police to his house. They ended up arresting Turing under the “blackmailer’s charter,” which criminalized “acts of gross indecency” between adult men in public or in private. It was under this law — not repealed until 1967 — that Oscar Wilde had been sentenced to hard labor in prison.

Yes, he was arrested for being gay.  And no, the result of that arrest is not pleasant reading.

To avoid a similar fate, Turing agreed to submit to a course of estrogen therapy intended to cure him of his homosexuality; as a result, he grew breasts and became impotent. Yet even after the treatment ended, the police, fearing that he might defect to the Soviet Union, stayed on his trail, interrupting every effort he made to live life as he saw fit. In June 1954, Turing committed suicide by biting into an apple laced with cyanide — a nod to his favorite film, Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”

The fate of Mr. Turing of course is wonderful news to those who fear and hate and loathe gay and lesbians, and want to punish them, but it is grossly appalling to the rest of us, a reminder that humanity is not yet completely human.

When Winston Churchill spoke of the Battle of Britain and talked about how so many owed so much to so few, he was not thinking of Alan Turing.  But Mr. Turing is surely ensconced in that group of “so few”.

A small gesture to atone to posthumously to Mr. Turning met this fate.

In February, the Liberal Democrat Lord Sharkey introduced the possibility of a pardon in the House of Lords, only to have his proposal rebuffed by Lord McNally, the justice minister. McNally argued that Turing “was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted. It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd — particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However, the law at the time required a prosecution.”

Strange, it seems that in England which is the source of the English language some people high up in government do not understand that the ‘justice minister’ is involved with ‘justice’,  or even understand what the term ‘justice’ means.  We don’t know who Lord McNally is, and hope we never know, never encounter the man and that this miserable excuse for a person soon leaves the public life in Britain.  It is people like Lord McNally whose opportunity to hold high positions of prestige and to be a 'Lord of the Realm' that are the result of efforts like Mr. Turing to defeat the Nazi’s in World War II who be should be asking Mr. Turing to pardon them.
For the rest of us, we can only say this.   Happy Birthday Alan.  And we’re sorry.

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