Alan Turing

Sorry, I’m a little late to the party on this one. After reading an article written by my colleague Glenn Paulley, I decided to write about it as well, mainly because Glenn’s blog and mine have different audiences. The story he writes about (and I’m about to cover) is both tragic and infuriating; I wouldn’t call the ending “happy”, but it’s certainly the best that could be expected under the circumstances. Note that this is not a technical article at all. It is about a computer scientist, but it’s mainly the story of a man.

If you’ve never studied computer science or cryptography, you have likely never heard of Alan Turing. Computer Science students don’t learn much about Turing the man, but you can’t study computer science for long before coming across his name. He was a brilliant mathematician and cryptanalyst who not only developed some of the most basic fundamentals of computer science and artificial intelligence, but helped to end World War II. Turing was one of the scientists who worked at Bletchley Park, and was instrumental in breaking the German “Enigma” code, among others. Turing was awarded the OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) for his work during the war.

Turing also happened to be gay, which was illegal in Britain at the time (and remained so until the late 60’s). Only seven years after World War II ended, Turing was arrested, charged, and convicted of gross indecency. As a sentence, he was given a choice: chemical castration or prison. He chose the former, and was given estrogen treatments to attempt to kill his libido. This was successful, but also caused Turing to grow breasts. His security clearance was also revoked, thus ending his employment with the government. In 1954, two years after his conviction, Turing committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide. There are some that say that his death was not a suicide at all, but accidental. Regardless, the death of this brilliant man at only 41 years of age was a tragedy.

In late July of this year, a British computer scientist named John Graham-Cumming started an online petition asking the British government to apologize for the treatment of Alan Turing. Within weeks he had several thousand signatures and on September 10th, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology to Turing.

Congratulations to John Graham-Cumming on getting this done, and kudos to Gordon Brown and the British government for doing the right thing and apologizing for the appalling treatment of Alan Turing.


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