On Sept 10th, Alan Turing received an apology from the British government 55 years after his death. Following a petition to 10 Downing St signed by 30,000 people, Gordon Brown formally apologized to the man who was so persecuted for being a homosexual that he committed suicide.
No student of computer science can avoid learning that Turing was an intellectual giant in the field. I recall the excitement I felt when I first understood the power of Turing machines, those abstractions that define the limits of what is computable, and which are the idealized prototypes of all digital computers.
He was just 41 years old when he died. It is as hard to fathom the horrors the man must have endured as it is to estimate the loss humanity suffered from the premature extinguishing of his genius. According to the TIME magazine estimation in 1999, Alan Turing was one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. I think that Turing will also make the list of the top 100 people in the last 2000 years. Our lives are better for him having lived.
That he was forced to kill himself is a damning indictment (as if yet another reason was needed) of the unspeakable brutality that monotheism imposes on humanity. The Western world has to a large extent weaned itself from the ideology that condemns the innocent to torture and death. But the most virulent form of the ideology persists in other parts of the world and the discouraging signs are that it is spreading. They routinely torture, stone, and hang homosexuals in Islamic countries today, just as they did centuries ago.
Alan Turing was born in England but, as the wikipedia entry helpfully informs us, he was conceived in India. He would have been persecuted in India as well, since the bigoted laws of monotheistic Britain were imposed on India. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is exhibit A. It is a crying shame that a civilizational ethos that is so extremely accepting of individual differences should have such bigoted laws on its books. Indians should hang their head in shame that they accept the bigoted narrow-minded medieval attitude of the West and reject the ancient wisdom of their own land. Fortunately, things are changing. There’s been some move towards removing Section 377 from the IPC.
In the West, they are recognizing Turing’s greatness.
A 1.5-ton, life-size statue of Turing was unveiled on 19 June 2007 at Bletchley Park. Built from approximately half a million pieces of Welsh slate, it was sculpted by Stephen Kettle, having been commissioned by the late American billionaire Sidney Frank.
Brings to mind those lines of Samuel Johnson, “See Nations slowly wise, and meanly just, To buried Merit raise the tardy Bust.”
In closing, I quote a few lines from the beautiful song by Don McLean about Vincent Van Gogh but which could as well have been written for Alan Turing:
For they could not love you,
But still your love was true.
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night,
You took your life, as lovers often do.
But I could have told you, Vincent,
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you.
NPR: All Things Considered (audio).