Turing remembered

Barry Cooper, Issue 113/02, p18, 01.02.2013
Gay icon and maths genius
When one thinks of Alan Turing, it is the individual that comes to mind – both his creative power, and his vulnerability.

The Alan Turing Year – 2012 – has been amazing. It saw this brilliant, aspergerish, gay and boyishly appealing character – an acknowledged genius whose work ushered in so much of today’s information age –belatedly celebrated, both in work and life, in over 40 countries.

Turing, who committed suicide in 1954 aged 41, was ahead of his time in many ways. Today, his life and work has become an inspiration and a source of empowerment for many people.

It was a poignant irony, given Turing’s still extant conviction for homosexuality, that the 2012 Manchester Pride Festival was in honour of local hero Turing, something that would have amazed him.

This month is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT) History Month and the theme is science, maths and engineering.

In previous exhibitions the cryptology and early computer science has been a strong theme, and so it should be. The way Turing helped to save lives and shorten world war two through his Bletchley Park decoding is a fascinating story.

Turing followers in Brazil recently paid over £60,000 for an original machine, and centred a Turing-themed exhibition in Porto Alegre around it.

And the small but nicely produced exhibition at the Science Museum in London incorporates early computing machines related to Turing’s seminal work at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington in the 1940s.

Manchester is rich in Turing associations – both with the first “real” computer, and more centrally with his brilliant work on the mathematics of how patterns in nature arise.

The latter was featured at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester (complete with Turing impersonator and a Turing sunflower experiment, which hundreds of UK schools participated in); and at Manchester Museum’s Alan Turing and Life’s Enigma exhibition. All over the web you can see beautiful examples of Turing-influenced artworks.

Turing was also a founding father of artificial intelligence, and the connection with robots and “practical Turing Tests”, involving chatbots, has great popular appeal.

When I gave a talk on Turing for 250 Beijing high school students, I was asked at the start: “Will there be robots?” by one bright-eyed youngster. The answer was, of course, yes.

For me it is painful to see Turing as a prime example of how the UK hosts such remarkable geeky youngsters, without fully honouring, understanding and supporting the hugely important outcomes of their work.

And the gayness, the probable Asperger’s syndrome, and the accompanying bullying (in Turing’s case, by the state) is an important part of the picture. There are young people out there who need to know the story and know they are not alone. When I wrote a Guardian Northerner blog on Turing and the bullying of Britain’s geeks it went viral.

One of the most moving experiences for me was speaking at the LGBT History Month 2013 pre-launch at Bletchley Park last November. The audience were not scientists in the main. But Turing’s science meant something universal about being individual in a world in which that is not easy.

“Thinking different” comes in many different packages. It is a UK speciality.

We can provide the spark of intuition, and the connections to enhance our everyday lives, through engaging with the lives of unique individuals such as Turing.
Barry Cooper is a professor of mathematics at the University of Leeds. February is LGBT History Month