Let’s Dance 2011: Alan Turing

Alan Turing with Poison Apple Illustration

In my second year of university I took a linguistics class that focused on Cryptology and Computer Science, and Alan Turing‘s name came up briefly in the section of famous code breakers working at Bletchly Park during World War II; the textbook included a side note about Turing’s contribution to computer science and artificial intelligence, describing him as the father of both modern disciplines, which intrigued me enough to start looking for more information about who this man was and why I’d never heard of him.

Who he was was relatively easy to find out: in an age where computers are an integral part of many if not most aspects of everyday life, it would be impossible to completely erase the man who invented the Turing Machine, a straightforward machine that simulates the logic of algorithms used by the CPU of a computer. Though that definition of a Turing machine is fairly unimpressive, think of this: Turing conceived of the device & wrote a paper on it in 1936, and in 2011 his work is still pertinent to modern computer science.

Wikipedia, for all its flaws, is a solid online source of information about Turing’s life; in addition to having the rough outline of his life, Wikipedia also has extensive information about his actual work, so if one is mathematically inclined, you can climb into the endless rabbit hole of knowledge and read about the theory behind things like the Turing test, Turing machines, the construction of an Enigma Machine and Belousov–Zhabotinsky reactions.

Wikipedia summarizes:

Alan Mathison Turing,(23 June 1912 – 7 June 1954), was an English mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist. He was highly influential in the development of computer science, providing a formalization of the concepts of “algorithm” and “computation” with the Turing machine, which played a significant role in the creation of the modern computer. Turing is widely considered to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence…

During the Second World War, Turing worked for the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking centre. For a time he was head of Hut 8, the section responsible for German naval cryptanalysis. He devised a number of techniques for breaking German ciphers, including the method of the bombe, an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine…

Turing’s homosexuality resulted in a criminal prosecution in 1952, when homosexual acts were still illegal in the United Kingdom. Turing was given a choice between imprisonment or probation conditional on his agreement to undergo hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido. He accepted chemical castration via oestrogen hormone injections…

Turing’s conviction also led to the removal of his security clearance, and barred him from continuing with his cryptographic consultancy for GCHQ…

Turing died in 1954, several weeks before his 42nd birthday, from cyanide poisoning. A post-mortem examination established that the cause of death was cyanide poisoning. When his body was discovered an apple lay half-eaten beside his bed, and although the apple was not tested for cyanide, it is speculated that this was the means by which a fatal dose was delivered. An inquest determined that he had committed suicide, though his mother and some others believed his death was accidental. Others suggest that Turing was re-enacting a scene from the 1937 film Snow White, his favourite fairy tale, pointing out that he took “an especially keen pleasure in the scene where the Wicked Witch immerses her apple in the poisonous brew.” …

I can’t write about Turing without crying; there is something about his life and death that haunts me. There’s this weird little paragraph wedged into the Wikipedia page about Turing, which briefly states that Turing proposed to a female co-worker at Bletchley Park and then almost immediately called off the engagement, telling his fiancee that he could not marry her because he was gay. It breaks my heart that he couldn’t pretend to be anything else but who he was.

I am a believer of the theorem that states that human beings are indivisible, their capacity for thought inseparable from their experiences. So I believe that Turing as an individual is inseparable from Turing as a mathematician and cryptanalyst; that it is impossible to separate Turing’s academic brilliance from his personal self, the queer self who loved and wanted men and who could not pretend otherwise. Turing was who he was; mathematician and cryptanalyst and gay man, all one and the same. And so the notion that Britain could first employ Turing as a mathematician and greatly profit from his brilliance and then tacitly condone his forced medical treatment and subsequent suicide is doubly despicable, once for the gross injustice of criminalized sexuality as well as for the hypocrisy of attempting to pick and choose what parts of Turing were acceptable and useful for the government.

But this is a personal history project, not a regurgitation of Wikipedia’s facts, tempting as they are. Why Alan Turing? I’m neither computer scientist nor historian, so Turing’s contributions to science and to the course of WW2 are academic facts, impressive as they are. For me, finding out who Alan Turing was and what happened to him came at a time in my life where I was just beginning to understand on a personal level, rather than just an academic or intellectual level, what being queer could mean to the rest of the world: that no matter what you did, no matter how many lives your work had saved, none of it would matter to the powers that be if one part of that indivisible self was found to be out of favour.

Around the same time I was haunting the library and the interwebs looking for information about Turing, I was also living among hordes of engineers, many of them computer science majors. When I asked them about their knowledge of Turing, all of them looked at me blankly and asked “Who is that?” They knew what Turing tests were, and Turing machines and many other applications of his work, but had never heard of the man who’d created them.

This flurry of research was in 2004; it would be another five years until then- Prime Minister Gordon Brown would formally apologize for Britain’s treatment of Turing.

So Alan Turing is for me all of the people who couldn’t hide their truth, and who paid the price for society’s bigotry and fear. He is all of the brilliant scientists erased by history books out of shame and fear, all of the people whose work isn’t allowed to be recognized by the world because of prejudice.

So. This June, on the day that he should have celebrated his 99th birthday, remember Alan Turing, father of computer science and artificial intelligence.

And here, as promised, is the first free hand embroidery pattern for this series: Alan Turing holding a poisoned apple. Use the pattern for non-commercial projects only.

Alan Turing with Poison Apple Free Hand Embroidery Pattern from Scarlet Tentacle

To get to the pattern, click on the image below to get to the image on Tumblr; once you’re viewing the image on Tumblr, click it again to enlarge and get to the biggest resolution file. Hopefully I’ll have figured out a better way to deliver these patterns; please be patient with me!


One thought on “Let’s Dance 2011: Alan Turing

  1. Pingback: Work In Progress Wednesday: Now with more Lace & Sparrow | Scarlet Tentacle – Audacious Handmade

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