The Tragic Suicide of Alan Turing
October 15th, 2010
Alan Turing was a brilliant English mathematician who helped the Allies win World War II.
Working as a cryptographer at the now famous Bletchley Park complex he used his incredible focus and intelligence to crack the seemingly impossible codes of the German Enigma Machine. By locking himself in his room for days at a time he managed to reverse engineer the Enigma Machine — a stroke of pure genius that allowed the British and their allies to anticipate attacks and other vital information, changing the course of the war.
He’s also known as the father of computer science. Time named him one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.
[E]veryone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine.
Alan Turing was gay. He killed himself on June 8, 1952, by eating a bite of an apple laced with cyanide. But why? We’ve seen a lot of theories from the right on why gay kids are killing themselves. Could any of them apply?
Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association might say it’s because society was pushing too hard for people to be gay:
It must be pointed out that homosexual activists are not wholly innocent in these tragedies either. Homosexuals cannot reproduce so they must recruit. Part of the agenda of groups like GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) is to urge students at younger and younger ages to come out and declare a disordered sexual preference. Sexually confused youth are pressured into locking into a sexual identity far before they are mature enough to do so.
Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council might argue that society was too accepting of homosexuality:
Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., said the rash September suicides by gays might be linked to the students believing they were born gay. “That creates hopelessness,” he said. “It is more loving and compassionate to say you don’t have to be gay for the rest of your lives.”
His colleague Tony Perkins might back him up:
Some homosexuals may recognize intuitively that their same-sex attractions are abnormal–yet they have been told by the homosexual movement, and their allies in the media and the educational establishment, that they are “born gay” and can never change. This–and not society’s disapproval–may create a sense of despair that can lead to suicide.
Could Turing have killed himself because homosexuality was illegal in Britain?
Could he have done it because police discovered his sexual orientation while investigating a burglary of his home, and he was convicted of gross indecency?
Could it have been because in order to avoid a prison term he submitted to chemical castration by the government via female hormones?
No, of course not. As Tony Perkins makes clear, society’s disapproval does not cause suicide. Alan Turing must have killed himself because Britain was just too damn accepting.
A True Hero Gets an Apology
September 10th, 2009
There 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.