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Topics In the News
Turing Centenary Observances
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 06/23/12
Last updated on: 06/23/12
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Alan Turning.

In honor of the centenary of Alan Turing's birth, a number of exhibits and symposia are celebrating the achievements of one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century. Turing helped crack the Enigma Code during World War II and pioneered in the development of computer science, but he also made important contributions to pure mathematics, biology, and artificial intelligence. In 1954, Turing committed suicide two years after his arrest, conviction, and forced chemical castration for a homosexual encounter.

Turing, who was born on June 23, 1912, was recognized for his wartime cryptographic work with an OBE (Officer of the British Empire) in 1946 and elected to the Royal Society at an unusually young age in 1951. But in 1952, when he was deputy director of the Royal Society Computing Laboratory at the University of Manchester, his life was turned upside down.

When he reported the burglary of his home by a working-class young man with whom he was involved, he was arrested and prosecuted for what was then known under British law as "Gross Indecency," a section of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 (also known as the Labouchère Amendment), under which Oscar Wilde had also been charged in 1895.

Turing was offered a stark choice: go to prison or submit to the administration of the hormone estrogen. This procedure was known as "organo-therapy," a form of aversion therapy designed to destroy his sex drive. It was a type of chemical castration.

The administration of the female hormone left Turing impotent. He also developed breasts. Two years after his arrest, and one year after this coerced and barbaric "therapy," Alan Turing used cyanide to kill himself.

Notwithstanding the fact that he may have been the most brilliant scientist of his generation, someone whose work in deciphering the German codes during World War II played a major role in achieving Allied victory, Turing was nevertheless sacrificed to the cold war hysteria over homosexuality.

He was, however, but one of many thousand U.K. citizens who were persecuted in this way. The honors and apologies now bestowed on this gifted man must be seen as in some measure an attempt to rectify a broader injustice.

In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology on behalf of the British government in which he described Turing's treatment as "horrifying" and "utterly unfair." In his apology, the Prime Minister also recognized that Turing's treatment was by no means unique. As he said in his apology, "Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was convicted, under homophobic laws, were treated terribly. Over the years, millions more lived in fear of conviction. I am proud that those days are gone and that in the past 12 years this Government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality, and long overdue."

An exhibit honoring Turing's scientific achievements opened at London's Science Museum on June 21, 2012.

In addition, BBC online has published a series of essays, accompanied by videos, in honor of Turing's centenary. The essays explore various aspects of his genius. Among them is an interesting discussion of the significance of his suicide by mathematician and gay activist Andrew Hodges, who authored the groudbreaking book, Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983), which was the first biography to recognize fully the role of homophobia in Turing's tragic end.

In honor of Turing's centenary, King's College, Cambridge is hosting an international symposium in which experts in various fields discuss the range and significance of his contributions to mathematics and science.

In the video below, Dr. James Cline of Cambridge University briefly outlines Turing's life: "Alan Turing was a mathematician, cryptographer and pioneer of computer science who possessed one of the greatest brains of the 20th century. His life was one of secret triumphs shadowed by public tragedy."

The video below introduces the exhibit at the Science Museum.

Finally, in recognition of the Turing centenary, the Google search engine is featuring a "Turing doodle" that is a puzzle illustrating how a Turing machine works. In order to explain the doodle, Google also posted the following video.

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