August 17, 2009

Hono(u)r Alan Turing

Alan Turing was the greatest computer scientist ever born in Britain. He laid the foundations of computing, helped break the Nazi Enigma code and told us how to tell whether a machine could think.

The world might have benefited from his ideas considerably more had the prudish (and, as it turned out, probably hypocritical) authorities at the time not hounded him to an early grave because of his homosexuality.

We should think before we cast the first stone, as we do not know where the universe pivots.

This story has been considerably edited, as I must acknowledge the force of my critics' remarks. The original was intemperate and, well, unoriginal so I decided to remove the call to read and sign a petition and simply make my own statement about how Turing, one of the seminal intellectual leaders of the 20th century, was treated by an unthinking populace allowing the irresponsible authorities to act "in their name". The first paragraph is from the petition.


Edward said...

"I hope all Brits, and computer-savvy citizens of all nations, will consider signing this petition."

I'm afraid the rules state only Brits can sign it, Steve.

- Ed

Steve said...

@Edward: how very British, expecting people to play by the rules. I am sure any relatively enterprising hacker could by now have voted 241 times under bogus identities.

For what it's worth, I still hope those who are prohibited from signing the petition will consider signing it; when they realize they can't, I hope they take action to ensure their views are represented through diplomatic channels.

Turing deserves this international honor.

Paul said...

I think this petition is ludicrous. There are a couple of things I find wrong with it:

* Why should the British Government apologise for the treatment of an individual under a previous law? Following this logic, should an apology be issued by the government to every person who was imprisoned for something which is now no longer illegal? And how far back? Up to magna carta?
* Why should Alan Turing be apologised to in particular over the hundreds of other persecuted homosexual men? Merely because he was a great Computer Scientist?

Surely the altering of the law to reflect the liberal attitude of its people is what Government was concerned with, not being a massive media beacon. If Gordon Brown spent less time handing out Football medals and commenting on pop figures to appeal to Joe Bloggs then I think the country would be better for it.

Steve said...

@paul: but nowadays we have to apologize to everyone who has ever been wronged,don't we? As to Gordon Brown's use of time I never could bring myself to believe that New Labor cared about me. So why not live in a country where it's obvious from the get-go that the government despises the people?

Noufal said...

I think it's more about recognising Alan Turing and honouring his memory than about getting an apology.

The emphasis is on his greatness as a computer scientist and a human being rather than his mistreatment as a homosexual.

History has recognised and honoured the man. I don't really thing that an apology by the British government is going to change anything except perhaps the wikipedia article on him.

Steve said...

OK, this is where I stop trying to defend the indefensible and confess that the petition might not be the best way to honor the memory of a great man. So I have done what I can to put things to rights.

Matthew Wilkes said...

For the record, I as a British subject do not give a rats arse what the opinions of foreign nationals is on the matter. The e-petitions site is for us to petition our government, not a glorified digg. Non-brits, kindly support the petition by publicising it, not by signing it, or honour Turing by donating to the museum at Bletchley Park ( which is in dire need of funds.

That said, I did sign the petition when it was covered on el reg. This is about acknowledging that homophobic laws in general are unacceptable violations of human rights. It would simply be impossible to single Alan Turing out for apology, he's just being used as an example of the kind of man whose life was destroyed by such laws.