The news that Great Britain formally apologized to the mathematician Alan Turing this week about bowled me over. Alan Turing cracked codes for the Allies during WWII, deciphering the Third Reich’s Enigma Code, and, according to some historians, shortening the war considerably. If that were not achievement enough for one life, his broader work in mathematics anticipated the creation of artificial intelligence, computers, and all of the constructs of the information age.
But, in 1952, when he admitted his involvement in a consensual homosexual relationship, he was prosecuted for gross indecency and subjected to chemical castration. Turing killed himself at the age of 41, suffering the effects of his court-ordered, hormone-induced “treatment,” by eating a poisoned apple.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown this past week called the persecution of Alan Turing “appalling.” It took 50 years and some high-pressure campaigning by the likes of the scientific anti-religionist Richard Dawkins for the acknowledgment to come.
Our program with mathematician Janna Levin entitled, "Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth," explores Turing’s life and legacy as she wrote about it in her brilliant novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, which also fictionalizes the mathematical world of ideas around the life of Kurt Gödel, another scientific genius whose life was tragic in completely different ways.
Levin’s interview with Krista has also left me with one of my all-time favorite SOF aphorisms. “If we were quantum particles,” Levin asserts at one point, “quantum physics would be completely intuitive.” Her fictional take on the life and times of these two great mathematicians is very much worth exploring.
(photo: Alan Turing stands beside the Ferranti Mark 1 Console, the world’s first commercially available general-purpose computer.)