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.
A pointless feel-good exercise? Too little too late? A fitting tribute to a national hero? I don’t know. Maybe all of the above, but on the whole I’m happy with it. Turing damn well deserves some recognition for being one of the founding fathers of computer science, not to mention his cracking of the Enigma ciphers. And who knows what other contributions he may have made, if he’d lived? In his last years Turing researched neural nets and artificial intelligence, amongst other topics. He might have helped drive not one but two information revolutions.
I read Andrew Hodges’ excellent biography Alan Turing: The Enigma not too long after coming out. Borrowed it from the library, which is a shame because I’d really like to reread it now. An abridged version (also maintained by Andrew Hodges) is available online which, shameless plug, was the basis of an article I co-wrote in my first semester at SFU.
And in all the discussion surrounding this apology, I found a link to an excellent short story that sort of answers my previous question. What might have Turing done, if he’d lived (and was helped by a time traveller)? Check it out