Thursday, September 10, 2009

Alan Turing, Apologies, and Cthulhu

The British Government has finally apologized for its treatment of Alan Turing. Turing was one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century. He was responsible for founding computer science and he lead the effort to crack the Enigma encryption used by the Germans during World War II. This work saved many Allied lives and according to some historians proved crucial to the victory over the Axis forces. Without Turing's work, our world would look very different. However, Turing was gay. In 1952, Turing was convicted for engaging in homosexual acts. He was forced to undergo hormone therapy which lead to weight gain and other problems. Turing's security clearance was revoked. At the time, homosexuals were considered a security risk because of the potential of blackmail. The fact that the entire risk of blackmail was because they were considered a security risk apparently did not matter. Nor did it matter that since Turing was publicly gay, there was no possible risk of blackmail. Turing's ongoing consulting work with the government was terminated. Turing's life took a steady downhill side. In 1954, he committed suicide.

I am ambivalent about this apology. On the one hand, it is good to acknowledge how horribly Britain treated one of the saviors of civilization. On the other hand, apologies to the long dead always strike me as hollow. The living always face more than enough issues that are of far more practical importance than assuaging the feelings of the long-deceased.

Rather than discuss the pros and cons of such apologies, I am instead going to suggest three pieces of further reading.

First, Wikipedia has an excellent biography of Turing which explains his accomplishments and his mistreatment in far more detail than one can easily do in a short blog entry.

Second, Greg Egan, an excellent science fiction writer, has written a short story imagining a world in which Turing's life went slightly differently. In this case, "slightly differently" means had the assistance of a time-traveling robot. The story is more serious than one might think from that summary. The story looks at Turing's interactions with C.S. Lewis. I'm not sure the story is completely fair to Lewis overall, but it is very well-written and is an amusing what-if. Like most of Egan's writing, there's just enough plausibly correct mathematics to make it interesting.

Third, Charles Stross has written an amusing novel The Atrocity Archives in which Turing figures in the background. The essential premise is that Turing did not commit suicide but was assassinated by the British government to cover up far scarier discoveries he made (so presumably the Brits still owe Turing an apology in that universe). In that novel, mathematics is deeply connected to magic and thinking about certain theorems can accidentally lead to summonings of Cthulhu and other eldritch horrors. Turing was killed for discovering a series of powerful theorems including a proof that P=NP which if invoked improperly could destroy our universe. Unlike the Egan story, this is not a story I can claim has much in the way of serious merit. But it is very fun. By most accounts, Turing was a man with a sense of humor about things. I'd like to think that he'd smile to know that fifty years after he was dead, Great Britain would be apologizing to him at the same time that people were reading novels which linked him to Lovecraftian horrors.

1 comment:

Shalmo said...

From that article:

"It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate - by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices - that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present."

Its interesting when you hear Europeans, particularly the British government apologize for past crimes and how selective they are in what they apologize for.

This article mentions xenophobia, homophobia, oh and of course how could they not forget antisemitism. And provide a little summary of the Holocaust to boot.

Yet you never hear of things like their recent colonial past. You never hear the Queen of England apologizing to the pakistanis in her country saying I'm I come out each wearing the crown jewels my people robbed from you during our imperial adventures in your lands.

One might also consider what a disproportionately small bunch homosexuals and jews are to consistently get so many apologies. Yet the far greater populations of south-asians overpopulating Britain get no similar apologies, despite far more horrible having been done to them if you read up on european colonialism in that part of the world

Winston Churchill was a murdering scumbag who killed thousands of Iraqis, yet he is commemorated as a hero in Britain. What if he killed gays? What if he killed Jews?

Its no hidden fact that the zionazi lobbyists (ADL in particular) are good in getting a constant flow of sympathy for Jewry to silence criticism of Israel.

Clearly they are not gonna apologize to muslim countries for what they've been doing there for the past 200 years, because they have to continue the insomnia of fear in order to address the worries of growing muslim populations in Europe.

But then that makes me wonder. How sincere are any of these "apologies" when such clear political interests dominate who they apologize to.

If they were sincere they would do something to solve the Kashmir conflict between Pakistan and India; which btw the British are responsible in starting in the first place.