Genius and Tragedy: The Life of Alan Turing

History is rife with examples of persecuted scientists—think Rhazes, Galileo, and Servetus, for starters—but it would be a mistake to think that such injustice was limited to the early pages of our history. As recently as the 1950s, a great injustice was done to a brilliant mathematician whose wartime efforts had saved countless lives: Alan Turing. His reward for deciphering the messages encrypted by the German Enigma machine in World War II? Chemical castration—all because he was homosexual. Today, on what would have been the 101st birthday of the mathematician, we turn to William Bynum’s account of Turing’s life in A Little History of Science to remember this man’s achievements.

Yale University Press’ Little Histories collection is a family of books that takes a closer look at some of the most significant events, ideas, discoveries and people throughout history. As part of our ongoing coverage of the collection, here’s an excerpt from William Bynum’s A Little History of Science, a book that examines the scientific discoveries that radically altered our understanding of the world.

Alan Turing

Turing was educated at Cambridge where, Bynum recalls, ‘his brilliance was recognised as a student there in the early 1930s’. During WWII, he worked at Bletchley Park, where he was a crucial figure in the cracking of German codes. In fact, he helped to create the Bombe machine, which deciphered messages that were encrypted by the Enigma machine. At Bletchley Park, he was known as a bit of an eccentric but there was no denying his role in the victory over the Nazis.

‘After the war’, Bynum continues, ‘[Turing] continued to push his ideas. He had great insights into the relationship between the way computers work and the way our brains work; on ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI); and even on developing a machine that could play chess. Chess grandmasters still usually win against a computer, but the machines are getting better at making the best move. Turing developed an early electronic computer called ACE at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, London. It had much greater computing capacity.’

Bafflingly enough, despite Turing’s enormous contributions to science—and to the wellbeing of the British public during the war—he was severely persecuted because of his sexuality. In 1952, he was arrested and tried for homosexuality, which was illegal in Britain at the time. He had to choose between going to prison or undergoing a treatment with sex hormones that would supposedly ‘cure’ his sexual orientation: he chose the latter, and was injected with oestrogen repeatedly to neutralise his libido. Furthermore, because homosexuals were considered a security risk since they were susceptible to blackmail, Turing’s security clearance was withdrawn and he could no longer work for the government. Under these incredibly difficult circumstances, Turing committed suicide by eating an apple laced with the poison strychnine.

It was only in September 2009 that the British government officially apologised for the harm that was inflicted on Turing—his conviction, however, has still not been legally overturned. There remains much for us to learn from Turing’s example—and if you’d like to explore his life further, it’s worth checking out the ongoing exhibition at the Science Museum in London—and his life and death are, as Bynum puts it, ‘reminders that outstanding scientists can be anyone of any race, gender, religion and sexual preference’.

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