June 23rd 2012 is the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth in London and a whole calendar of events are being organised and staged [see website above] to celebrate this remarkable man who Nature recently hailed as ‘one of the top scientific minds of all time’. The magazine’s special issue on Turing at 100 (much of which can be read on-line). In the opening essay Tanguy Chouard writes:
'This special issue sweeps through Turing’s innumerable achievements, taking us from his most famous roles – wartime code-breaker and founder of computer science – to his lesser known interests of botany, neural nets, unorganised machines, quantum physics and, well ghosts.’
There is an excellent essay by Andrew Hodges, the author of ‘Alan Turing: The Enigma’ first published in 1983 [a Centennial edition is coming out this year]. It is a widely considered one of great scientific biographies. Hodges maintains a website on Turing here: www.turing.org.uk/
Hodges’ book had a huge role to play in stimulating fresh interest in Turing’s work and revealing the tragedies of his personal life. In the intervening years, his reputation, writes Hodges, has gone from ‘zero to hero’. Yet their remain wrongs to be righted.
Pete J. Bentley begins his book with Turing and his ideas permeate the entire narrative. According to Bentley’s account, in 1952 Turing’s house was burgled. He reported it to the police and the culprit turned out to be a man who Turing had had a gay relationship with. As homosexuality was illegal at that time, Turing was charged and prosecuted for gross indecency. Found guilty, he was offered the option of prison or chemical castration (injection with female hormones). He chose the latter.
Bentley writes ‘It is claimed that Winston Churchill said Turing’s work was the greatest single contribution to victory in the Second World War’. Turing had also been awarded the OBE. Yet his security clearances were revoked (he’d been working at GCHQ) and, for the rest of his short life, he was scrutinised by the security services.
In 1954, he was discovered dead, with a half-eaten apple by his side that had traces of potassium cyanide on it. Friends, colleagues and family believed his death was accidental; the verdict at the inquest was suicide.
Sir Roger Penrose unveiled a blue plaque in his memory in 1998 and said of him: ‘The central seminal figure in this computer revolution was Alan Turing, whose outstanding originality and vision was what made it possible.’
Subsequently a petition was launched which succeeded in getting the Government to issue an apology. The then Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s message - published in The Telegraph - said in part:
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. I am proud that those days are gone
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.
(The Guardian/The Northern Blog)
The campaign continues
If you are a UK citizen consider signing the e-petition to grant Turing a pardon
In the MY HERO feature in the Review section of the Saturday Guardian (12.11.2011), the great children’s writer Alan Garner recalled the stocky jogger who used to go running who was obsessed by mathematics and biology. He writes:
‘We had one thing in common: a fascination with Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, especially the transformation of the Wicked Queen into the Witch. He used to go over the scene in detail, dwelling on the ambiguity of the apple, red on one side, green on the other, one of which gave death. We had both been traumatised by Walt.’
He concludes; ‘He died of cyanide poisoning. By his body was an apple, partly eaten. The apple was not tested for cyanide. His name was Alan Turing.’
During the course of producing these posts it was suggested to me that the Apple logo related to Turing’s death. It appears its origin was rather more prosaic.
According to its graphic designer Rob Janoff, the “bite” in the Apple logo was originally implemented so that people would know that it represented an apple, and not a tomato. It also lent itself to a nerdy play on words (bite/byte), a fitting reference for a tech company.