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Truthdigger of the Week: Alan Turing

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Posted on Dec 29, 2013
Cambridge University/YouTube

By Alexander Reed Kelly

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating. Nominate our next Truthdigger here.

One of the world’s earliest computer geniuses, a British man whose work helped save humanity from fascism, was persecuted to death by the homophobic authorities of his era. This Christmas Eve, thanks to popular pressure and the authority of Queen Elizabeth II, justice to his memory and legacy has been served in the form of a royal pardon.

Before it became one of the world’s most feared and despised institutions, the signals wing of the British intelligence service chiefly intercepted and decoded secret Axis communications during the Second World War. Its work began Sept. 4, 1939, the day after the U.K. declared war on Germany, when 27-year-old Princeton mathematician Alan Turing reported to Bletchley Park, the wartime station of the Government Code and Cypher School. Turing set to work creating the mathematical means to decrypt messages exchanged by the German military via what was known as the Enigma machine. Historians estimate the development of the Turing-Welchman bombe saved as many as hundreds of thousands of Allied lives and sped up the war’s end by up to two years.

Turing’s ultra-rare genius enabled him to become one of humanity’s true heroes. Like Bach at the harpsichord or Melville with language, his gift for mathematics led him not only to effortlessly understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity at age 15, but to condense the work into a Cliff’s Notes style reader for his mother. By age 22, he had created the theoretical basis for the modern computer, and within a few years, experts say, demonstrated that the existence of certain insoluble problems in mathematics meant that complete and perfect knowledge of the universe could never be attained. As a reader at the University of Manchester after the war, Turing laid the foundation for artificial intelligence, and in the early 1950s made significant contributions to mathematical biology, the discipline that allows us to calculate, anticipate and intervene in the course of biological processes.

British officials repaid these and Turing’s other contributions with a criminal conviction. In January 1952, Turing admitted to having a sexual relationship with a man. The confession brought a charge of “gross indecency.” Turing met the unemployed 19-year-old Arnold Murray just before Christmas outside a Manchester theater. A few weeks into their relationship, Turing’s home was robbed. Murray told Turing he knew the man responsible, and in the course of reporting the crime to the police, Turing revealed that he and Murray were sexually involved. (Turing’s friends described him as being committed to truth and clarity as a matter of constitution, no matter the circumstance.) Homosexual acts were criminal in Britain at the time and would remain so until 1967.

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Rather than spend years in prison, Turing took an offer of probation on the condition that he undergo a year of hormone treatment. The procedure, which involved injections with synthetic estrogen, amounted to castration. His body became deformed. Impotency set in. He grew breasts. Additionally, a series of questions as to whether he could guarantee he would never reveal secrets of his intelligence work to lovers—a concern inflamed by knowledge that two recently discovered Soviet double agents associated with Cambridge were gay—led to the stripping of his security clearance and his debarment from further work with the GCHQ, Britain’s intelligence agency. Under constant surveillance by authorities, Turing’s privacy evaporated.

In the summer of 1954 Turing’s housekeeper found him dead. The autopsy determined the cause to be cyanide poisoning, and an inquest ruled the death a suicide. Whether Turing killed himself is a matter of some debate. Acquaintances and colleagues described him as careless. Some speculate he inhaled the toxin while performing experiments in one of his tiny spare rooms. Others looked to the apple he habitually ate before bed. The half-eaten fruit that was discovered next to his body was never tested for cyanide, but Turing’s love of the “Snow White” tale continues to give some people a romantic way to imagine his end. He was 41 years old.

Though he was awarded the title Order of the British Empire by King George VI for his wartime services, his involvement in cracking the Enigma code remained an official secret for many years. Remorse over his tragic end struck the public conscience when his role became known. Fury within Britain grew to a boil in 2009 when Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an “unequivocal apology” for the Justice Ministry’s actions. Efforts to gain Turing an official pardon paid off this Christmas Eve when, after the Ministry of Justice refused to pardon Turing, Queen Elizabeth II did so herself under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy. The queen has issued only four such pardons since the beginning of her reign in 1953, the year after Turing’s conviction. Gay and human rights advocates and others cheered the announcement, but many wonder whether the approximately 75,000 men who were convicted of the offense—some 16,000 of whom are still alive—will be similarly absolved of wrongdoing.


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