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A True Hero Gets an Apology

Timothy Kincaid

September 10th, 2009

TuringThere are not many people who have changed the course of political history or impacted the day to day lives of nearly every person on the planet. Alan Mathison Turing did both.

In 1936, two years out of college, Turing presented the paper, On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem. In this, he proposed that a machine could perform mathematical computations if presented as an algorithm. These Turing Machines (in practice, theoretical) were programmable and could replicate the function of any other machine.

During the Second World War, the German superpower communicated by means of an encryption device call the Enigma. With British and other allied sources unable to decrypt communications, Germany was free to engage in warfare that was immediate and reactive.

England found it essential that these codes be conquered and turned to Turing. Turing and his associates at the Government Code and Cypher School created a series of machines that were about to intercept and decrypt Germany’s military messages, an endeavor that was incalculably valuable. Turing even traveled the the United States to work with U.S. Navy cryptanalysts and to assist with the development of secure speech devices.

It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of the Second World War could have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war.

After the war, Turing returned his attention to computing. He extrapolated on his earlier work, presenting papers on how to create a programmable machine – or computer – and on artificial intelligence, among other contributions.

So influential was Turing to your ability to read what I’m writing that he is considered by many to be the father of modern computer science. And the most prestigious award given to contributions to computer science is the A.M. Turing Award.

An appreciative world should have thrown flowers at his feet. But Turing had a flaw that 1950′s western civilization could not find forgivable. Turing was gay.

In January 1952, Turing met a charming young man, Arnold Murray. Murray accepted an invitation to stay the night at Turing’s home, but he had other than amorous motives. During the night, he let in an accomplice to rob the place.

When Turing reported the incident to the police, the investigation revealed that Turing and Murray had a sexual encounter. This being illegal, Turing was convicted under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885.

England found that it’s appreciation for his war efforts on its behalf was far less compelling than its disapproval of his orientation. So his government gave Turing a choice, imprisonment or chemical castration.

After two years of oestrogen hormone injections, during which Turing grew breasts, he ended his life at age 42. And one of the greatest mathematical minds that the world has known ceased to contribute to society.

Today the United Kingdom has apologized.

In an article in the Telegraph, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has penned a tribute to Turing and expressed regret on behalf of the nation.

While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was convicted, under homophobic laws, were treated terribly. Over the years, millions more lived in fear in conviction.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say: we’re sorry. You deserved so much better.

Yes. He did.

The Gordon Brown’s statement has also been posted on the Number 10 Downing Street web site, which is the official governmental web site for the office of the Prime Minister:

2009 has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

Gordon Brown

Comments

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Christopher Waldrop
September 10th, 2009 | LINK

I’ve heard about this before. I know Janna Levin, a physicist who wrote a novel called A Madman Dreams Of Turing Machines described Turing as having a kind of genius’s blind spot. He was a brilliant mathematician but tragically naive when it came to reporting being robbed.

Richard W. Fitch
September 10th, 2009 | LINK

“The Man Who Knew Too Much”(David Leavitt, 2006), one of the biographies of Turing, is a fascinating read both for those interested in LGBT history and artificial intelligence. Turing collaborated with John von Neumann in many computer developments which are now at the core of CIS. Had Turing lived another 20-30 years, who knows how much more rapidly the field might have developed under his expertise, but he had to go — he was queer!

Penguinsaur
September 10th, 2009 | LINK

his middle name was MATHison? That’s one freaky coincidence, maybe I’ll name my kid John Chemiston Hawkins.

But seriously its sad to think that this probably couldnt happen in America without the religious right throwing a shitfit and trying to deny all his accomplishments.

Ben in Oakland
September 10th, 2009 | LINK

Now that the British government has apologized for its past aobminable treatment of gay people, they can go one step further and approve full marriage rights for us, instead of second-class civil unions.

Then maybe gordon Brown can say with a straight face:

“So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely… I am very proud to say: we’re sorry. You deserved so much better.”

David C.
September 10th, 2009 | LINK

Another good book on A.M. Turing is Alan Turing: The Enigma. Highly recommended if you really want to understand the scope of his contributions to the war effort, computing, and mathematics.

Swampfox
September 10th, 2009 | LINK

Turing was a member of the huge code breaking team at Bletchley Park during WWII. The existence of the code breakers at Bletchley Park was a secret until the 1970s. What was done to Turing was a crime.

GreenEyedLilo
September 10th, 2009 | LINK

Too late for Turing, but really, it’s an apology to the world for throwing someone so important, who gave so much to the world and could have given much more, away like so much garbage because he was gay. It’s an apology to today’s LGBTs and a hope that we and our contributions will be gratefully accepted, even though most of us won’t be at all like Turing. I’m okay with that.

Regan DuCasse
September 10th, 2009 | LINK

I just saw a wonderfully acted and beautifully written stage play called “Breaking The Code” about Turing. I read one of the books mentioned here and wanted to cry at all the wasted potential in the gay community.
THAT is truly the crime against nature and God, and the progress of humankind.

Apology accepted, now…
Go about the work of PREVENTING repeats of such a tragedy on mankind.

Burr
September 10th, 2009 | LINK

Computers are gay!

j/k

Too little too late, but better than nothing. It still boggles the mind to try and wrap my head around the logic of basically doing the same thing the Nazis did to the guy who saved them from him.

Swampfox
September 10th, 2009 | LINK

Does anyone know if this kind of sentence was routinely handed down in Great Britain to homosexuals at the time?

Richard W. Fitch
September 10th, 2009 | LINK

@Swampfox: Apparently it was common. Turing had the choice of prison or chemical castration. He thought the latter to be the lesser of two evils; however, the subsequent depression generated was more than he could handle. The story goes that he ate a poisoned apple, like Snow White.

Cole
September 10th, 2009 | LINK

When will the U.S. government appologize to gay Holocaust victims for making them serve their entire sentences?

Dan
September 10th, 2009 | LINK

Not nearly good enough. Words without deeds mean nothing.

What is needed is prosecution of any still-living members of the police force and the prosecutor’s office that drove Turing to his death. Although their actions were legal under UK law at the time, they are in violation of international human rights laws and Europe actually has a mechanism to prosecute.

The Lauderdale
September 10th, 2009 | LINK

@Richard W. Fitch:
Seriously? I need to look that up, about the poisoned apple!

I saw a BBC version of “Breaking The Code,” in which one of the motifs was of Disney’s “Some Day My Prince Will Come” from Snow White. It must be an allusion to the story you mention.

Richard W. Fitch
September 10th, 2009 | LINK

@The Lauderdale: Yes, seriously. Turing had a fascination with the story of Snow White and the Prince Charming who rescued her. He killed himself by lacing an apple with cyanide. His mother confirmed that a partially eaten apple was found near his body and a friend of Turing recalled comments Alan had made more than once on the idea (cf, pp. 140-141,279-280). There is urban legend (?) that the Apple Computer logo is actually a tribute to Turing (rainbow-coloured, missing a byte/bite). The Leavitt book was published in 2006 and should be available for purchase or at most library branches. [ISBN-13: 978-0739471951] There are some good reviews on Amazon.

Geoff Coupe
September 11th, 2009 | LINK

The Leavitt biography is not bad, but for me, the best biography remains “Alan Turing – The Enigma of Intelligence”, by Andrew Hodges. BTW, that was the original title when it was first published in 1983 in the UK. For the later, American, publication of 2000, it was retitled as “Alan Turing: The Enigma”.

Hodges is himself a gay mathematician, and his biography of Turing is magisterial. He maintains a large web site devoted to Turing at http://www.turing.org.uk/

CPT_Doom
September 11th, 2009 | LINK

Just one addition to Timothy’s wonderful recap of Turing’s work. As I recall the story, the breaking of the Enigma code, using purloined machines stolen from captured German U-Boats, was only the beginning of Turing’s amazing work during WWII. Swamp Fox notes the large number of code-breakers who worked at Bletchley Park, and Turing was indispensible there as well.

That’s because, even with the availability of Enigma machines and other devices used to decode German messages, the sheer volume of information the code breakers had to sort through was breathtaking – remember that every German message was encoded. So the location of convoys or UBoats was interspersed with requests for provisions and personal messages between commanders. Turing’s work didn’t just help break the code, he helped create a code breaking operation that could work quickly enough to ensure important information was identified and sent on to military commanders in time for it to be useful. That is a tremendous accomplishment in itself.

Pete H
September 11th, 2009 | LINK

I am heartened by this article, but I can’t help feeling slightly irritated that ‘we’ are still referred to as the ‘LGBT community’. I’d prefer Brown to have referred to “LGTB citizens”, and I’d prefer all of us to think of ourselves that way too. The term “LGBT community” implies that we live in a world outside that inhabited by the heterosexual citizenry. A separatist mentality is unhelpful and divisive.

Alex H
September 11th, 2009 | LINK

Like that wonderful duet between Deniece Williams and Johnny Mathis, “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late.”

How about instead of all these apologies after the fact, these people in power do something to make sure that LGBT people of today have equal rights?

Anyway, at least Turing is getting some recognition now. A lot of good that does him…though.

Timothy (TRiG)
September 18th, 2009 | LINK

I’ve been enjoying the discussion at Pharyngula.

TRiG.

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