British Government Apologises To A Hero
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has officially apologised to Alan Turing, one of my biggest personal inspirations, for the appalling treatment he received from the government before his death in 1954.
OK, it’s not exactly a household name, but I guarantee you’ve used the fruition of his theoretical and practical work.
Turing was a mathematical genius who not only helped break the German Enigma codes (a monumental turning point for the Allies in the Second World War), but who also founded an entirely new field of science—the one in which I hold my M.Sc.
Described by friends and colleagues as an accomplished marathon runner with a shy personality and annoying laugh—Turing was also unapologetically gay in a time where such an existence wrought severe and unjust consequences.
Truly, the list of accomplishments achieved during Turing’s life is matched only by the tragedy surrounding his death. Robbed by an ex-lover, Turing was forced to reveal his personal relationship with the burglar to the police, drawing an immediate conviction under criminal laws barring homosexuality. The agreed punishment was chemical castration via a year’s worth of regular hormonal injections. The hormones permanently changed his physical appearance, including the development of breasts (of which us gay men aren’t particularly fond), but it was the loss of his security clearance with the government that devastated him the most. He died two years later of apparent suicide, a poisoned apple sitting on his bedside.
For me, the sadness of Turing’s life is balanced by its immense personal influence. As I sit here, typing and illustrating on what is still known in academic and mathematical circles as a Universal Turing Machine, I can’t imagine what my life would be like had he never existed. I wonder how he would react to all the joys being unlocked within the branches of science he founded. And what an injustice that I get to study these joys so intimately, while the mind that sparked them had no such opportunity.
It doesn’t make up for history, but the British government’s recognition and apology was the right thing to do. You deserved better, Alan, and recognition of that is spreading.
(And a gentlemanly tip o’ the hat goes to Slap reader Mark from the UK for alerting me to this important development, and for participating in the petition that helped bring it about!)