Friday, December 27, 2013

The Death Of A Genius

Alan Turing OBE, FRS was granted a Royal Pardon this week. His crime? Being homosexual.

When he was convicted of Gross Indecency in 1952, he was given the choice of imprisonment or probation. A condition of probation was to  undergo a course of chemical castration by injections of synthetic oestrogen to render him impotent and remove his libido.
He chose the latter.
He died of an overdose of cyanide two years later.
Two weeks before his 42nd birthday. 

The pardon process was started with an internet campaign, and in  September 2009,  British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized on behalf of the British government for "the appalling way he was treated." In May 2012, a bill was put before the House of Lords to grant Turing a statutory pardon.  But in July 2013,the government opted for a pardon under the royal prerogative of mercy on 23 December 2013.

The man was a genius in his the field of mathematics and he seems to have been a charismatic and intriguing one. He is best known for being a key part in the team that broke the enigma code. This work is reputed to have shortened the second world war by two years. The fact that his work has been kept restricted for over 70 years shows its importance. The team based at Bletchley Park made five major advances including decoding the indicator procedure the German navy used at the time, and (too late to be used in the war) a portable voice scrambler, codenamed Delilah.

Turing's papers from this period have titles like, “ Report on the applications of probability to cryptography” and “Paper on statistics of repetitions”. Or, as he once said, 'from a contradiction, you can deduce everything'. Food for thought for us crime scribblers.
Turing’s genius ranged from mathematics to cryptanalysis to computer science. None of us would be tapping a keyboard to make the magic on the screen it if were not for Turing. He was educated at Cambridge University, the National Physical Laboratory, the University of Manchester and Princeton University. His Thesis was on Systems of Logic based on Ordinals (1938) which sounds pretty impressive to me. But recall that I am the blogger that took a month to find the on switch on my new tablet/hybrid/thingy which I don’t even know the name of.

Turing’s dad Julius, worked with the Indian Civil Service but he and his wife Ethel agreed that their children should be brought up in England. Young Alan soon showed signs of being a brain box with that steely determination (or madness) usually associated with those who are 'very good at things'.  When he was 13, his first day of term coincided with the 1926 General Strike in Britain so he just cycled the 60 miles to school, spending the night at an inn. He did this on his own (at 13!).

Being very good at mathematics gave his teachers at a school (which was founded on a more classical education) some concern. I found a quote that his headmaster wrote to his parents: "I hope he will not fall between two stools. If he is to stay at public school, he must aim at becoming educated. If he is to be solely a Scientific Specialist, he is wasting his time at a public school".

But he was truly gifted and by age 16 he was solving advanced problems  In 1928 Turing encountered Albert Einstein's work, had a think and extrapolated  from it. By this time Turing  had only been taught elementary calculus!

Turing was pleasingly eccentric. In his time at Bletchley Park he would wear a standard issue gas mask to ward off hay fever, he would chain his mug to the radiator pipes to prevent it being nicked. Most interestingly, he was a talented distance runner. He used to run the  40 miles to London when he was needed for high-level meetings. He was also capable of world-class marathon standards. I wonder if he used that quiet contemplation of the distance runner to think.
In 1941, Turing  had a short lived engagement to a Bletchley park  co-worker Joan Clarke. She knew of his homosexuality but was  not bothered by it. It bothered him though and he did not go through with the marriage.

In January 1952, Turing started a relationship with a 19-year-old man but when  Turing's house was burgled and he reported the crime to the police, Turing  acknowledged his sexual relationship and was charged with gross indecency. He pleaded  "guilty", but never felt any remorse or guilt. He believed he was what he was.

At that time the public were paranoid about the security issues of  homosexual entrapment, the first two of the Cambridge five had just been exposed. Turing had his security clearance removed and he was barred from working at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), (the  new Bletchley park)

On 8 June 1954, Turing's cleaner found him dead. He had died the previous day and the post mortem showed he had died from cyanide poisoning.  An inquest determined death by suicide although, despite all his medical and legal problems, he was in a good frame of mind. He had spoken to nobody about being despondent, and had even made a 'to do' list for his return  from the holiday weekend,
Beside his body lay half-eaten apple. It was not tested for cyanide but there has been much speculation that this was how he consumed the fatal dose. It is fascinating that this mega intelligent human being was captivated by the story of Snow White…. especially the bit where the queen is 'changed' to the evil witch…. by the act of eating a poisoned apple.
Maybe it is more likely that  he died as a result of the accidental inhalation of cyanide fumes from some experimental apparatus that Turing had set in his very small, badly ventilated room.  Especially as the some suggest the coroners findings pointed to death by inhalation of the fumes rather than  ingestion.
There is a film coming out next year, called the The Imitation Game, which stars  Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing. Not often I get excited about a film release, but that is one I am looking forward to.
At the back of my mind, there is the question.. 42 is life have lived – what else might he have gone on to achieve.

Caro Ramsay  GB 27/12/2013


  1. Thank you for this, Caro. The pardon now seems ridiculous to me. What are they pardoning him for? They should posthumously convict the people who tortured him and robbed the world of a genius.

  2. Indeed. The other point is that they have pardoned Turing because of who he was, not because he was innocent. What he did was against the law of the land at the time (sadly) so what about all the other low profile gay men who suffered the same fate but are getting no apology or pardon.

  3. I always find it... well, not humorous, exactly... maybe "curiously humanly silly"?... when governments issue posthumous pardons and such. Pure political clap-trap, solely to appease the unhappy citizenry.

    That aside, Alan Turing was, indeed, one of the great scientific minds of the last century! Thanks, Caro. (And yes, I'm looking forward to the film also!)

  4. Thanks, Caro. I was thinking of doing a blog on Turing, but you did it better! While he is best known for his code work, he made huge contributions to the theory of Computer Science. The "Turing Machine" is a template for what computers can and can't do. The "Turing Test" is whether humans can tell whether they are communicating with a computer or not. One of our honours students this year had a project to produce computer generated classical music. At the end of his presentation, he played us two samples. The first seemed rich and emotive, the second slightly repetitive and less interesting. When we were asked to vote, we complemented him on the quality of his work, but agreed that it was the first work that was by a human composer and the second was the computer.
    You guessed it. The first was the computer; the second was Mendelssohn! His program passed the Turing test.

  5. Everything about this has always saddened me. It seems we never learn. We allow the arrogant, the bigoted, the uniformed, the unenlightened political demagogues to blindly press their righteous agendas. Modern case in point: stem cell research.

  6. Thank you. Well-said. Amen to Annamaria's sentiments.

    In the States, the demagogues who promote this bigotry and anti-science ajenda are often opposed by voices of reason. But they are very aggressive. Take the outrageous laws pushed through in Texas and other states restricting women's health care, much of it based on "junk" science and lies,

    Hope the film on Turing is widely seen. The Btitish government owes him and all gay people more than an apology.

  7. I don't think we should blame the ignorant and, dare I say stupid. We should blame the power-hungry who play on their ignorance to win their support.

  8. Amen to Annamarie on the above comment.