Alan Turing, the mathematician, cryptanalyst, logician and computer scientist who was hounded by the British establishment for being gay, was born exactly 100 years ago today. To mark the occasion, a number of events are taking place.
The University of Manchester is holding the Turing Centenary Conference. Running over four days, the event, which began yesterday, celebrates Turing’s massive body of work and discusses the history and development of computer science and artificial intelligence.
In addition, throughout the summer, the city of Manchester will be holding a series of Turing-themed lectures, films and competitions for schoolchildren.
Until 18 November, the Manchester Museum is playing host to “Alan Turing and Life’s Enigma” – an exhibition that documents “Turing’s investigations into how complex shapes and patterns arise from simple cell structures in nature [which will include] a mass planting of sunflowers in an attempt to solve one of the maths problems that Turing worked on”.
Turing was a Reader in Mathematics at the University of Manchester, working there from 1948 until his death in 1954. In 2007, the Alan Turing Building was opened on the university campus, and a new plaque paying tribute to him has been unveiled there today.
Meanwhile, the Lesbian and Gay Foundation have launched a new honour in his name, which will be awarded during their annual Homo Heroes Awards.
Announcing the new award, Paul Martin, LGF’s chief executive, told the BBC that Turing had made “a monumental contribution to the freedom that every single one of us enjoys in the UK today” and Manchester City Council’s Bev Craig added that he’d been chosen as “[he] was not ashamed of who he was, but he paid the ultimate price”.
Second World War
During the Second World War, Turing worked for the British Government’s Code and Cypher School (now GCHQ), at Bletchley Park – devised techniques to break German cipher codes.
Despite Turing’s massive contribution to helping defeat Nazi Germany, the British establishment hounded him for being an openly homosexual man, leading to his criminal prosecution for what was still illegal in the UK at the time. As an alternative to going to prison, Turing accepted the barbaric treatment of chemical castration. Less than two years later, Turing was found dead from cyanide poisoning, less than two weeks before his forty-second birthday.
An inquest into his death ruled that he’d committed suicide. However, at a conference in Oxford taking place today, Professor Jack Copeland will question the evidence that was presented at that inquest. According to the BBC, “Copeland believes the evidence would not today be accepted as sufficient to establish a suicide verdict [and] argues [that] Turing’s death may equally probably have been an accident”.
On 10 September 2009 – following a long Internet campaign led by John Graham-Cumming, and 55 years after Turing’s death – the then British Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official public apology on behalf of the UK Government for the way in which Turing had been treated after the war.
Part of the statement read: “While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him [...] So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.”
Other events to mark Alan Turing’s centenary have included an Edinburgh University lecture given by Professor Jim Al-Khalili (Professor of Physics and Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey).
More information about Alan Turing can be accessed at Andrew Hodges’s Alan Turing Home Page or through Gay & Lesbian Humanist, which is published by the UK’s only independent gay humanist organisation – the educational charity the Pink Triangle Trust.