Celebrating a persecuted genius

Alan Turing, born 100 years ago this week, was one of the scientific geniuses of the 20th century, a key codebreaker for Britain in the Second World War and a pioneer of computing.

In 1952 he was prosecuted for being gay, chemically castrated and died two years later from cyanide poisoning.

Today London’s Science Museum has an outstanding exhibition celebrating his career. Its title “Codebreaker” reflects his best-known work, developing the anti-Enigma machine at Bletchley Park to decode Germany’s secret messages. It is credited with saving millions of lives.

But it was not Turing’s only achievement. As early as 1936 he had published a seminal paper, “On Computing Numbers”, and the exhibition features the Pilot ACE computer, built to his design and considered the most significant surviving piece of evidence of the man’s brilliance.

His wartime contribution and status as one of Britain’s greatest thinkers did not save him from the prejudices of the day. Homosexuality was illegal in 1952 as it was in Oscar Wilde’s day. Turing was tried, convicted, and forced to accept treatment with female hormones as the only alternative to prison. He died in 1954 at the age of 41. Cyanide was found in his body and an inquest determined that he had committed suicide. An article published this month by Jack Copeland, professor of philosophy at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury and an authority on Turing’s work, casts doubt on that verdict, but not on the fact that he was unmercifully hounded.

In recent years fellow scientists have campaigned on Turing’s behalf and in 2009 then Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official apology for his treatment.

This year the BBC has commissioned a series of articles about the scientist, Copeland’s included, to coincide with his centenary. You can find them on the BBC news website under “technology”.

Turing’s work deserves to be more widely recognised. I learned of the Science Museum exhibition from my sister, an Imperial College graduate who used to work there. Hats off to the scientific community for commemorating the man.


Dr Rowan Williams, soon to retire as Archbishop of Canterbury, was introduced at a recent meeting of the Royal Society as “the most distinguished occupant of his seat since St Anselm”. St Anselm was the man more than 900 years ago, so that’s saying something.

Now Williams has denounced Prime Minister David Cameron’s “big society” concept as waffle, “designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable”.

The accusation is made in his forthcoming book, Faith in the Public Square, in which he criticises both Cameron’s coalition government and its Labour predecessors for their economic policies and for the wars in the Middle East.

The archbishop’s concern over welfare is timely. Far from heeding his concerns, Cameron has just announced plans to slash benefits, including housing support to single parents and to 380,000 under-25s. That pretty much puts paid to his image of “compassionate conservatism”.

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