Hail, Alan Turing, Hero!
June 7, 2014 Leave a comment
As part of my new grammatomantic lunar calendar rituals, I’m setting aside three days each lunar month for the veneration of the dead in my life. The first day is given to my Ancestors of Kin, those to whom I am descended from by blood. The final day is given to the Ancestors of the Great, culture heroes and other Mighty Dead who shaped the world we all live in. The second day, however (associated with the letter Qoppa, and held this lunar month on June 16), I give to my Ancestors of Work, famous people to whom I look up to for the things I do in my life. They’re like my family ancestors, but with ties of labor and field rather than blood and kin, a family linked together by the things we do rather than who we are. As a magician, I put people like Pythagoras, Orpheus, Cornelius Agrippa, Crowley, and the like in there, but magic isn’t the only thing I do. My day-job professional and academic career is based in computer science, and today, on the 60th anniversary of his death, I’d like to recognize Alan Turing, one of the greatest computer scientists the world has ever had.
Born on June 23, 1912, Alan Turing came from Irish, English, and Scottish family, and had a natural inclination towards mathematics from a young age. This didn’t serve him too well in public schools at the time, when education focused more on classics than what we’d consider hard sciences today; still, even at 16 and not only reading but expanding on the work of none other than Albert Einstein, the dude was pretty cool at the things he was good at. His work really shone through in the early development of computer science, working on one of the most famous problems of mathematics, the Entscheidungsproblem, or “Decision Problem”, the solution to which was that there was no solution at all. Not only would this have surprised some of the most famous mathematicians of the time, but it’s become a central topic in computer science taught from the beginning ever since.
Not only was he a brilliant computer scientist and mathematician, but Turing also served the British Army, especially helping during World War II. With his extensive knowledge of mathematics and science, Turing became one of the foremost codebreakers and leaders in deciphering enemy ciphers. Not only did he produce general means to break German codes, while other methods used at the time were fragile and relied on too many assumptions, he also provided efficient means of breaking various types of code, helping to critically fight the German war machine (in several senses). After WWII, he furthered the field of computer science as well as that of artificial intelligence, and pursued several advances in chemistry.
Despite having chatted with the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, occasionally ran the 40 miles from his office to London, and inducted into the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by King George VI, and basically invented modern computer science in an accessible manner, the world at that time effectively condemned him: he was gay. After having his house robbed by an acquaintance of a lover of his, and noted that fact to the police, he was charged with indecency, since homosexuality was still illegal at that time in Britain. Charged with this non-crime, he pleaded guilty (despite having no guilt nor shame for being gay, as he damn well shouldn’t’ve), he was given the choice of imprisonment or probation with chemical castration; he chose the latter, which would allow him to continue working, but it rendered him impotent and caused gynaecomastia. This, combined with reparative treatment to “cure” his homosexuality (which we know nowadays from the “ex-gay” movement never works and only causes further harm), did nothing good.
Adding insult to injury, he lost his security clearance and was barred from continuing with cryptographic research with the government (even though he pretty much won WWII for them), and was even barred from entering into the United States. He died on June 7, 1954, only at 41 years old. Two years after his conviction and beginning of hormone treatment, with an investigation reporting that he committed suicide by cyanide poisoning with a half-eaten apple near his body, which is thought to be (but never confirmed) to be how he killed himself. Rumor has it that this is where the original rainbow-colored partially-bitten apple logo came from for the Apple computer company, but that’s not the official story.
Today, I honor Alan Turing especially as a hero in my life. An incredible amount of the technology I use and work I produce is indebted to him, not only because he helped develop the computer, but also because he helped turn the tides of war that could’ve endlessly shaped the world some 70 years ago. His brilliance shines as a light for me, as a computer scientist but also as a human being. Being a gay man myself, my heart breaks every time I recall how the world back then treated him for being the same way, and I pray that neither I nor anyone else has to undergo that sort of blatant bigotry and persecution. Like Turing himself, though, I bear no guilt nor shame for who I am, and I take only joy in the work I do. I’ll likely never run 40 miles nor ever care to, but hey, more power to Turing for doing that, too.
Ave, Alan Turing. May your memory never be forgotten, and may your name and spirit always live on. Guide our minds to know what can be known, and guide our hearts to love whom we will love, both without fear and without scorn. Help us and be with us in our work, and may we thank you every time information flows through the fruits of your labors to us.