Alan Turing: The Genius Scientist Who Took His Life Due To Homophobia
August 22, 2018|María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards
After years of enduring the physical and psychological pain of a forced chemical castration, genius Alan Turing committed suicide by eating an apple poisoned with cyanide.
After years of petitions and long battles in the British Parliament, on Christmas 2013, Queen Elizabeth II signed an official pardon for Alan Turing’s unfair conviction for what was known as “gross indecency.” Until then, only four royal pardons had been issued in the history of Great Britain. But why was this so important and emblematic, mainly in today’s reality? Today, Alan Turing’s name isn’t only a synonym of genius or hero, it’s also a representation of pride and the will to do everything in your power to defend who you are. As you might know, this genius scientist whose work was crucial in ending the war, and whose theories led to the creation of modern computers, took off his life after two years of having endured chemical castration and discrimination on account of his sexuality. But how did the government totally forget about his deeds and decide to persecute him?
From an early age, Turing was encouraged by his parents to pursue a life in academia, though not precisely in the science field, which wasn’t that promoted by public education at the time. They wanted him to pursue a career in the arts and the classics. Of course, he couldn’t care less about those subjects and was always really interested in mathematics, physics, and chemistry. He attended King College’s in Cambridge, where he continued his studies in math and analytics. There, he proved to be the most brilliant mind of his generation, to the point that after graduating he had already written the foundations of what would become his biggest contribution to the world. In his “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” he already establishes his theory about a universal machine that can interpret and process any given algorithm. The machine came to be known as the Turing Machine or Universal Computing Machine.
With the outbreak of WWII, he was summoned to work at Bletchley Park, the central site for British and Allied code breakers. There, he became a leading figure in the deciphering of German codes. When he started working at Bletchley, codes would take a lot of time to decipher and by the time they were broken, the Germans had usually changed their codes already. He believed that his machine was key to break all of these codes and allow the Allied Intelligence to really be ahead of the enemy. One of the many contributions to the work was his improvement to the Polish Bomba, which he named bombe. This was a device that incorporated his universal computing machine, so that it would process and give the most logical outputs out of codes.
When the war ended, he and many members of his team were honored with the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire for his work in the war efforts, though his actual work was kept a secret for many, many years. He was also given security clearance, which allowed him to work on secret government jobs. In the following years, he continued working on his own projects, and in 1950, he developed his first test for an artificial intelligence device that’s still used today in several technological creations. But his glory wasn’t going to last forever and it all came to an end in 1952.
Turing never tried to deny or hide his sexuality. His biographers and people he met recall that in academic circles he would be pretty much open about it, mainly because the environment was actually quite open. However, everything changed when his house was broken into. After going to the police to denounce the crime, he declared that he had a relationship with a man called Arnold Murray, who had been a witness. Automatically, the police forgot about the theft and focused on Turing’s homosexuality, whih was considered a crime in Britain at the time. He was charged with “gross indecency” and sentenced to choose either imprisonment or chemical castration. He chose the latter since he was so focused on his research and work that he wasn’t willing to stop.
Two years later, he was found dead in his bedroom. The autopsy found that he had committed suicide by ingesting cyanide, which matched with the half-eaten apple found at his bedside. It’s said that the whole chemical process caused him terrible pains that lasted for days, and he couldn’t bear it any longer. The great genius who had helped end the war killed himself after being forced to endure punishment for something he strongly believed was nothing to be ashamed of. There are some theories that claim that he didn’t kill himself, but rather accidentally inhaled cyanide fumes out of a machine he had in his room, but that was never confirmed. Later on, the image of the apple and the poison became an important and symbolic element that encompasses the hard last days of this man’s life and the treatment he received in exchange for the huge contributions he made to the world, as Prime Minister Gordon Brown declared in his 2009 public apology.
When the case was brought back to the conversation in 2011, Justice Minister Lord McNally, discarded the petition claiming that “the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times.” But that wasn't the end. As we mentioned before, in 2014, the Queen granted that official pardon. But what about the thousands that endured the same treatment and faded into oblivion? In 2016, the Alan Turing law was issued as retroactive exoneration to all those who were convicted for similar offenses based on their sexuality. Sadly, this law applies only in England and Wales, but it still is a great beginning, though a little too late, to start changing outdated beliefs and moral standards covered by the law that have hurt so many people around the world.
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