Turing 100

Professor Jim Al Khalili, ERS Turing lecture 02

(Professor Jim Al-Khalili signing books after the Turing lecture)

On Thursday night I attended a special guest lecture at Edinburgh University’s George Square Theatre, organised by the Edinburgh Royal Society, with author, theoretical physicist and broadcaster (he’s presented some excellent science documentaries on the BBC and C4) Professor Jim Al-Khalili. It was part of a series of events going on this year to mark 100 years since one of the great minds of the 20th century, Alan Turing, was born. I’ve always been a huge admirer of Turing – the father of computing and Artificial Intelligence, working out systems on pencil and paper before he and his colleagues, along with the GPO’s hugely gifted electronic engineer Tommy Flowers, created the world’s first electronic computer, a device so secret it was classified for decades while publicly others took the glory for ‘first’ computers later. Because they used this to help break the Nazi Enigma codes, without which the Second World War might have taken many more years of hard struggle and countless thousands more lives. He and his Bletchley Park colleagues were, in a real sense, war heroes, just not the sort who carry a rifle into combat, but utterly essential to the defeat of the Axis and the safeguarding of free civilisation. Turing was also a gifted visionary who was able to conceive of using science and mathematics to model thought processes years before others, giving new pathways to exploring both computing technology then emerging as well as understanding more how the incredibly complex human brain works and how that could be applied to machines, if they too could be make to think, each step along that road revealing more about the astonishing complexity of our own minds than that of our complex technology.

Sadly in the 50s Turing, a homosexual man, was arrested, homosexuality being illegal at the time, stripped of his security clearance despite his wartime record and given a choice of chemical castration or prison. He took the former but was never the same; depressed he took his own life with an arsenic laced apple. So little appreciation from the government of the country he had helped save with his genius and dedication and a reminder today when we see some clergy and politicians making unsavoury remarks about gay people how such comments can lead to attitudes and actions which can take lives, to the detriment of all of society… Turing remains one of my scientific heroes, though, and I was pleased that a public campaign a couple of years ago resulted in the then Labour government of Gordon Brown publishing an official apology for the way Turing had been treated back in the Britain of the 50s.

Jer with Professor Jim Al Khalili
(my friend Jer with Jim after getting his copy of Jim’s latest book signed)

PM apologies for Turing

A while ago a petition was started on the 10 Downing Street site asking for the British government to do something posthumously about the great Alan Turing. Turing wasn’t just a genius – an astonishing mathematician, one of the fathers of computing (this in the 1940s, mark you), early thinker in Artificial Intelligence and a legendary codebreaker whose work in the incredibly secret world of BletchleyPark’s Station X was an enormous part of the Allied effort in the Second World War. In fact it is no exaggeration to state without the work of Turing and his fellows there is a very real chance the good guys might not have won, or at the very least the war would have run far longer, claiming many more lives (and imagine if Nazi Germany had lasted another 2 or 3 years, imagine if they had time to fully develop their new fast jet fighters to attack Allied bombers, expand their V2 rockets which there was no defence against, continue atomic experiments… It doesn’t bear thinking about).

There is a part in Neal Stephenson’s fascinating Cryptomonicon, a novel which, like his later (although set in earlier period) Baroque Cycle mixes real historical figures with fictional to create a tale richly detailed with extensively researched history, where those working with Turing in the race to decode the German Enigma codes ponders what they do. At first he thought their team was fighting the shadow war while the real war raged in the skies and seas and land. Then he starts to realise what they are doing, shadowy and theoretical as much of it is, is the real war: fates of convoys, great warships, divisions of troops, even the fates of nations depend on what they are doing behind the scenes.

For his enormous contribution to saving his nation and invaluable intelligence in defeating the most odious, vile threat the free world has faced Turing was persecuted by his country. Alan Turing was homosexual, at a time when it was not just treated as unacceptable by society but actually a criminal offence. His security clearance was revoked, he was hounded, subjected to a ridiculous snake-oil ‘cure’ which was effectively a form of chemical castration. Alan took his own life not long afterwards, eating an apple he had laced with cyanide. An intellectual genius who had armoured the free world against violent Nazi oppression was oppressed by a bigoted society until he took his own life. Thankfully today we have moved on a bit in the way that gay, lesbian, bi or transgender folks are viewed and treated but there are still so many ignorant bastards who still rant their ignorant bigotry as if LGBT people were of a different species and this is the cost of that kind of uncomprehending, ignorant hatred, one of our best and brightest lost and although he used his brain rather than a bayonet or a Spitfire, someone I would consider a war hero who fought the good fight as hard as anyone.

It is good in this month that marks the 70th anniversary of the start of World War Two that Gordon Brown has formally apologised for the way Turing was treated, although a full pardon and offering proper government support for the museum at Bletchley Park would be better – the place where many men and women laboured in secret, without honours or publicity, to help win the war deserves to be better known. Its not as eye-catching as a Spitfire or the Normandy Landings, but the backroom boffins of Station X paved the road to victory as surely as the soldiers, airmen and sailors, as well as pioneering a whole new field of codebreaking, intelligence and birthing the modern computer, all kept secret for decades, so sensitive was this information (much of it was used during the subsequent Cold War for British Intelligence, it was that good) and both Turing and his colleagues should all be far more honoured than they have been. We have many public monuments to those who sacrificed all in defending us, and its right we should, but we should also honour the remarkable intellects who did no less a work in defending everything we believe in.