Sunday, June 24, 2012

Alan Turing: Remembering a Gentle Gay Genius

I really liked the way that Google marked the 100th birthday of Alan Turing. 

Not because I was able to crack the code eh? I gave up trying to figure it out after about five minutes, with smoke coming out of my ears.

Not for making me feel like a complete idiot. Thanks Google.

But for honouring the memory of this gentle gay genius. 

When the history books of the future are written, Alan Turing will go down in the company of Newton and Darwin and Einstein. His visions changed how humanity conceives of computation, information and pattern -- and 100 years after his birthday, and 58 years after his tragic death, Turing's legacy is alive and growing.

Who was owed so much, but treated so badly.

He lived in a time when neither his genius nor the incalculable value of his work were a defense against society’s enmity toward gays. 

Turing was convicted in 1952 and given a choice between prison or treatment with female hormones, a form of chemical castration.

 He chose the latter. His other punishment was losing his security clearance, which essentially sealed off from him a community in which he had flourished.

He saved thousands and thousands of lives, including those of Canadians on the North Atlantic convoys. He helped shorten the war. But still they punished him for being gay. They humiliated him. They drove him to despair and suicide.  

All that he might have contributed was lost. And all he ever got from the British government was an apology, but not a pardon. And a lousy postage stamp. 

You know, this is my favourite picture of Alan Turing, drawn by his mother...

Which helps explain the kind of person he was, and why later in life he was so fascinated with sunflowers.

Alan Turing, perhaps best known for helping crack the Enigma Code during WW2, was fascinated by how maths works in nature. Turing noticed that the Fibonacci sequence often occurred in sunflower seed heads. He hoped that by studying the plant it might help us understand how plants grow, but died before he could finish his work. 

Our tribute to Turing is a mass experiment to grow 3,000 sunflowers. If enough people grow, we can collect sufficient data to put Turing’s and other scientists’ theories to the test. What better way to mark the mathematician’s centenary than to complete his final research project?

And why although I love that tribute, I like this one even better.

The LGF's chief executive Paul Martin said Turing had made "a monumental contribution to the freedom that every single one of us enjoys in the UK today". "What makes Turing's legacy so tragic is that in the final months and years of his life, many of his own freedoms were denied to him," he said.

Damn those bully bigots.

Fight the hatred that kills.

Remember the gentle genius who helped save the world...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Thanks for posting this. I heard a documentary on BBC radio (on CBC) about him the other day. I'd never heard of him before. WWII, they said, in order of importance: Churchill, Roosevelt and Turing.

This was a nice article too, the centenary celebration at King's College, with some video, written by a Turing biographer.

- Monica