He was a brilliant logician and pioneer in the field of computer science who cracked the secret messages sent by the Germans during World War II, saving millions of British lives in the process. But no machine or algorithm could have preserved Alan Turing’s own short life.
The famous British code-breaker (1912–1954) was found guilty in 1952 of breaking another code—that of conduct. Because he was homosexual at a time when same-sex relations were considered to be a criminal offense, he was sentenced—in lieu of prison—to chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. The discomfort and indignity of the treatment pushed Turing to commit suicide at the age of 41.
But just days before Christmas this year—and nearly six decades after his untimely death—Turing received a royal “mercy” pardon from Queen Elizabeth. She issued the pardon in response to a high-profile campaign launched and supported by tens of thousands of people around the world, including Stephen Hawking.
Oddly enough, just last year the current British prime minister, David Cameron, refused to pardon the martyred scientist, pointing out that Turing had known he was committing a crime under the law as it stood at that time.
As convoluted and heartless as this statement may sound in the context of our 21st-century sensibilities, let’s not forget that the UK was not the only country that had ostracized and persecuted homosexuals. (Another notable example is writer Oscar Wilde, who was sentenced to two years of hard labor in 1895).
In the United States, even in the midst of the Civil Rights movement that had sparked sweeping social reforms, same-sex relationships were considered to be an “indecent, lewd and dissolute behavior” that fueled widespread prejudice and discrimination. As this 1967 CBS News report demonstrates https://youtu.be/-AXAOT_swIE, the majority of Americans at that time found homosexuality to be “more disturbing than adultery and prostitution.”
For Turing, exoneration came too late. He didn’t live long enough to see his vision—a theoretical machine of the future he imagined in his 1936 paper, “On Computable Numbers”—become a reality (and then some): computers that could solve mathematical problems, calculate square roots, and generally perform both simple and complex tasks for which a program could be written are now a fixture in practically every home.