it.gen.nz

Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Time to right a wrong

The British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has publicly apologised to Alan Turing, saying that his treatment was “appalling”. Quite.

Alan Matheson Turing was a British mathematician and Word War II codebreaker. He was the main person responsible the British ability to read the German Enigma codes. His contribution may well have saved Britain from being starved into submission by U-boat packs and so of losing the war. His work, without doubt, saved many lives. But, because of the heavy secrecy about it, most people had never heard of him until late last century.

Turing was a very unconventional character. He was gay, but made little attempt to hide. He was convicted after the war of gross public indecency – i.e. of having sex with a consenting male partner in private – and forced to undergo repeated injections of female hormones in some kind of bizarre attempt at chemical castration. He committed suicide two years later.

It’s about time that Britain faces up to how badly Turing was treated, and for that matter how badly other gay men have been treated over the years. Gordon Brown’s apology is fulsome, as it should be, but long overdue.

posted by colin at 10:04 am  

3 Comments

  1. I think his fundamental contributions to computer science, such as the Turing machine, and it’s associated derivatives and mathematics, are far more important than his contributions to the war effort.

    Comment by mundens — 12 September 2009 @ 11:08 am

  2. Have you seen the play “Breaking The Code”?

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115749/

    Comment by Lawrence D'Oliveiro — 12 September 2009 @ 12:40 pm

  3. Mundens – his mathemtical contributions were of the highest order, agreed. My point really is that he saved the British establishment and look how it treated him.

    Lawrence – yes, I have seen that, twice as it happens. It’s a powerful piece of drame and I recommend it to anyone. You don’t need to be a crypto-geek – it’s warm and human in its treatment of Turing’s brlliance and his demise.

    Comment by colin — 12 September 2009 @ 5:30 pm

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