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The Heartbreaking Life and Death of Alan Turing

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Pajiba Storytellers | August 31, 2012 | Comments ()


"Science is a differential equation. Religion is a boundary condition." -Alan Turing

Alan Turing was one of the most brilliant men ever spun out of the human genome, a mathematician by trade, a codebreaker during World War II, and in 1936 he published the intuitive leap that invented the information age. He adapted Kurt Gödel's mathematics of logic into the theoretical application that became the basis for all computers. At the time, great machines were constructed by PhDs for various specific sundry tasks of computation. The bastard offspring of pipe organs and telegraphs, these steam punk hybrids filled rooms, chomped on punch card memory chips and ticker tape hard drives, chugging and grinding along like your grandma's ancient sewing machine. There were adding machines, dividing machines, machines that calculated digits of pi. Before men programmed with keyboards, they programmed with welding arcs and valves.

What Turing proposed was both simple and spectacularly profound. Why have specialized machines, when one could have a general machine? If all math can be reduced to a common language of logic, then anything that can be written as an algorithm can be written in that common language. Rather than designing individual machines for every logical operation imaginable, man need only design a machine that can execute the basic logical grammar. Any imaginable thought that could be expressed in that language of logic, be it as simple as addition or as complex as interpreting the noise of the stars would be comprehensible to that machine. And the further nuance: if such a machine could be built, a machine that ran on a logical grammar, then it could be told how to translate the logical grammar of any other such machine. In that deceptively simple concept rests the foundation of every desktop computer, every chip controlling a car's fuel injection, every video game console, every electronic cash register, every calculator. Just about everything in the modern world that uses electricity and isn't a light bulb is a direct descendant of Alan Turing's 1936 insight: there is only one machine. The generations of computer scientists he birthed simply call that a Turing machine. You're reading this on one right now.

Turing was an atheist or agnostic, depending on one's particular definition. He believed that the universe was materially understandable, but that the new field of quantum mechanics might hint that everything we are might live on after death, our every thought rippling outward on quantum wave fronts. But that insistence on scientific explanation informed a corollary of his notion of a universal machine: that the human brain was also one of these machines.

Having invented the information age, revolutionized cryptography by spending the war years breaking every code the Nazis could devise, and planted the seeds of artificial intelligence and computer science, Turing was awarded the Order of the British Empire. Of course, he committed the most heinous crime short of communism imaginable in postwar Britain. He was homosexual.

Not needing him to break any more codes, and not imagining at the time much use for those computing machines, the British government saw fit to convict him under the same statute that ruined Oscar Wilde's life fifty years previously. Given the choice of imprisonment or chemical castration, Turing chose the latter. He dosed an apple with cyanide two years later, killing himself with Eve's temptation and Newton's inspiration. He was only 41 years old.

It's a story ripe for the telling on two levels. Most people have no idea what computers really are, and what makes them more than just fancy machines. The little humming boxes underneath our desks are our first prototypes for building a replica of the human mind. But it's also a profoundly philosophical leap, this idea that anything that can think can be translated into anything else that can think. All the disagreements, all the hatred, all the fanaticism, all that is just running on the software level. We're all the same machine underneath, whatever country or culture we come from, hell, whatever planet we come from. Turing's insight is to thinking what the discovery that stars were made of hydrogen and helium was to physics. What is out there is the same as what's down here.

But the second layer is the simple fact that a discovery of such profound democratic egalitarianism was made by a man indirectly murdered by his society in the prime of his life for the crime of his very nature is as painful as irony can get. Every bit of repression is not just a crime that society commits against those repressed, but a crime against society itself, robbing itself of some portion of the genius it contains. Repression is slow societal suicide.

There have been a couple of documentaries that touched on Turing's life, and a play that later spawned a BBC movie back in the nineties, but nothing on the big screen. Get a young actor who can play the skinny genius with sad eyes, someone like Joseph Gordon-Levitt or James McAvoy, willing to take a chance and hungry for roles that mean something. Make this Brokeback Mountain crossed with A Beautiful Mind.

"I am not very impressed with theological arguments whatever they may be used to support. Such arguments have often been found unsatisfactory in the past. In the time of Galileo it was argued that the texts, "And the sun stood still... and hasted not to go down about a whole day" (Joshua x. 13) and "He laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not move at any time" (Psalm cv. 5) were an adequate refutation of the Copernican theory. " -Alan Turing

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Glenn

    "There have been a couple of documentaries that touched on Turing’s life, and a play that later spawned a BBC movie back in the nineties, but nothing on the big screen. Get a young actor who can play the skinny genius with sad eyes, someone like Joseph Gordon-Levitt or James McAvoy, willing to take a chance and hungry for roles that mean something."

    Actually, the number one screenplay on the last blacklist was a biopic (more or less) about Turing titled The Imitation Game. Last I heard Leo was interested.

  • Fiona

    Whoops! Here's the short video.

  • Fiona

    There is a statue of him the Gay Village in Manchester, seated on a bench, with an apple in his hand. Without demeaning him in any way, this video makes me smile every time.

  • Fiona
  • liam

    Mind as quantum waterfront? Wow, how many times have you read the Hyperion Cantos?

  • This is perhaps my favorite SLW article. particularly "Repression is slow societal suicide."

  • Semilitterate

    Anyone wanting to read about some of Turing's work in WW II, fictionalized of course, would find Neil Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon" interesting reading

  • frank247

    I don't know how you have missed this, but while it isn't purely about Turing, it is the Enigma part of his story.


  • Clancys_Daddy

    A pox on all homophobic cocksuckers.

  • fritish

    Most brilliant line in the article: "...killing himself with Eve’s temptation and Newton’s inspiration"

  • Slash

    Haven't read the post yet (I'll get to it), but yeah, Alan Turing got totally screwed. You'd think the British govt. would have some fucking gratitude towards the guy who helped them defeat Hitler.

  • frank247


    Too little, too late, I know.

  • idiosynchronic

    I don't think you could make an honest adaptation of Turing's life in 2-3 hours - it was just that extraordinary.

  • ingres

    While it's easy for us to understand why someone like Turing would kill himself, such an ending is by no means the only interpretation of events. There are some (Jack Copeland, chief among them) who disagree with the "suicide" verdict.

    Turing was said to be in good spirits around the time of his death, and was known to bear his torments as well as could be expected. Suicide doesn't seem in character, given the descriptions of his state of mind. The possession of cyanide in his home, moreover, isn't surprising given the experiments he was conducting at the time. His half-eaten apple was never tested for the poison. The investigation was bungled, in other words, and would've live up to scrutiny given modern evidential standards.

    None of which lessens the tragedy of what happened. He was a great mathematician and scientist who was persecuted by his society. Dying at a tragically young age, he died before witnessing the great changes he helped initiate.

  • I loved this. I had no idea just how important his contributions were and how awful the circumstances of his death had been.

  • Sara S.

    Thanks for the article. I never knew much about Turing until now, but I shall shock others with my Turing-knowledge now. Thanks :D

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