Brain Pickings

Alan Turing: Church, State, and the Tragedy of Gender-Defiant Genius


On the man who was caught between the past and the future in clothes a size too small, and profoundly changed our lives anyway.

Little about your day so far, including reading this, would be the same were it not for logician, mathematician, brilliant eccentric, avid reader, and computer science pioneer Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954). While he remains celebrated as instrumental in the invention of the computer, responsible for coining the very concepts of “computation” and “algorithm” in their present form, Turing — who has shaped nearly every facet of our modern lives — is also one of history’s most tragic figures. Beyond his intellectual prowess, another aspect of his character permeated his intellectual contribution and ultimately led to his untimely death, yet it remains at best a silent echo.

In 1952, Turing was criminally prosecuted by the U.K. government for his homosexuality, illegal at the time, and forced to take female hormones to “cure” his unlawful “disorder” — a process known as chemical castration — as an alternative to a prison sentence. Less than two years later, shortly before his forty-second birthday, Turing committed suicide.

In The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer (public library), David Leavitt offers a poignant lens on how Turing’s homosexuality factored into his intellectual and creative triumphs and tribulations:

In a letter written to his friend Norman Routeledge near the end of his life, Turing linked his arrest with his accomplishments in an extraordinary syllogism:

Turing believes machines think
Turing lies with men
Therefore machines cannot think

His fear seems to have been that his homosexuality would be used not just against him but against his ideas. Nor was his notion of the rather antiquated biblical locution ‘to lie with’ accidental: Turing was fully aware of the degree to which both his homosexuality and his belief in computer intelligence posed a threat to organized religion. After all, his insistence on questioning humankind’s exclusive claim to the faculty of thought had brought on him a barrage of criticism in the 1940s, perhaps because his call to ‘fair play’ to machines encoded a subtle critique of social norms that denied to another population — that of homosexual men and women — the right to a legitimate existence. For Turing — remarkably, given the era in which he came of age — seems to have taken it as a given that there was nothing wrong with being homosexual; more remarkably, this conviction came to inform even some of his most arcane mathematical writings. To some extent his ability to make unexpected connections reflected the startlingly original — and at the same time startlingly literal — nature of his imagination.

To further illustrate this odd duality of the disenfranchised and the prodigious that defined Turing’s existence, Leavitt cites the writings of novelist Lyn Irvine, whose husband was the mathematician Max Newman, and her brief recollection of Turing published in the late 1950s — an insightful portrait of him as a man unable to fit into the standard social molds, torn between the past and the future:

Alan certainly had less of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in him than most of his contemporaries. One must go back three centuries (or on [forward] two perhaps) to place him…

This tension of belonging, elusively just beyond reach, comes up a few paragraphs later, where Irvine writes:

He never looked right in his clothes, neither in his Burberry, well-worn, dirty, and a size too small, nor when he took pains and wore a clean white shirt or his best tweed suit. An Alchemist’s robe, or chain mail would have suited him, the first one fitting in with his abstracted manner, the second with that dark and powerful head, with its chin like a ship’s prow and its nose short and curved like the nose of an enquiring animal. The chain mail would have gone with his eyes too, blue to the brightness and richness of stained glass.

Leavitt laments:

The alchemist took logical principles, wire, and electronic circuits, and made a machine. The knight defended the right of that machine to a future.

If only he had been able to save himself.

The most tragic irony — or, perhaps, the greatest frontier for redemption — is that today, we’re still debating the very civil liberty and basic human right the violation of which precipitated Turing’s suicide, but we’re waging our wars, fueling and following that debate, largely via the machine he invented. More than half a century later, how many Turings are we forcing to be smaller than they are, and how many are we losing completely?

But for now, complement the altogether fantastic The Man Who Knew Too Much with a much more upbeat way to celebrate Turing — a LEGO Turing Machine, recreating the famous 1936 Turing Machine, the first simulation of a computer algorithm, in everyone’s favorite brick toy:

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