Wednesday, September 09, 2009

An apology for Turing may be in the works

Recall that Alan Turing
  1. helped Britain win WW II with his breaking the enigma,
  2. was a brilliant mathematician who was one of the founders of our field
  3. was prosecuted for being a homosexual by the British Government,
  4. was forced to take chemicals to cure him of it,
  5. committed suicide (almost surely because of the drugs and prosecution),
There is now a movement in England to have posthumous apology to Alan Turing (see here) by the British Government. I suspect that most of the readers of this blog would agree with such. I do also. But see next paragraph.

Does one need to help the war effort and be a brilliant mathematician to get the apology? I think they should lower the standard to the following: you need to have either helped the war effort or be a brilliant mathematician to get the apology. Or how about anyone who was persecuted under those laws? Should Britain offer a blanket apology? Would that weaken the impact? I don't know? Perhaps the question is also- what are they trying to achieve?

Whatever apology they end up giving I would like to see it accompanied by legislation that Turing would have approved of (Marriage Equality? Anti-Discrimination? Hate crime legislation? More Grant money in Recursion Theory? AI?) Or maybe an award in his name.


  1. Here is the petition:

    You must be a British citizen or resident to sign it.

  2. Not to diminish Turing's important contributions at Bletchley Park during WWII, but wasn't Enigma first cracked by the Polish Cypher Bureau in the 1930s?

  3. It seems to be becoming a well-known fact that Turing did indeed commit suicide, by poisoning himself with a cyanide-laced apple. Actually, it's not certain that this was the case. Andrew Hodges' biography of Turing is an interesting source for information about this.

    On the other hand, points 1-4 are certainly true...

  4. To be slightly pedantic about this, Turing wasn't prosecuted by the "British government", which makes it sound like a political act. He never made much of a secret of his orientation, a matter of complete indifference to the numerous government officials he dealt with at Bletchley, and to most other members of what were then the ruling classes, but the law hadn't caught up with moral attitudes.

    He was prosecuted by the police, who in the course of investigating a break-in at Turing's property, discovered that he had had a relationship with one of the burglars that was a criminal offence at the time. Some policemen even then would have overlooked this, and some accused would have been more skilful in assisting them to overlook it. Turing was unfortunate on both counts. The prosecution was in the name of the Crown, because that's how it works here.

  5. Anonymous 4: I think this is a British vs. American English language issue. In American English the word "government" is often used to refer to the entire public sector, which includes the police. (For example the ".gov" part of the domain name "".) My understanding is that in Europe "government" is often used to mean "ruling party/coalition", but that meaning is not common in the US.

  6. Or maybe an award in his name. Would funding the Turing award better to raise the cash payout to Nobel levels help the prestige of CS in the wider world?

  7. Excellent point.

    Anyhow, Turing got his lasting reward for his work: history will remember him as a great man. Maybe he could have gotten more recognition while he was alive, but we cannot help it, can we?

  8. I don't see why the government should apologize for anything. Sorry to invoke Godwin's, but that's like the current German government apologizing for Hitler. They have nothing to do with each other.

  9. well well, not everyone can be as lucky as Von Neumann. oh, johnie , where are though ... I always thought there should be an equivalent of a Von Neumann Prize.

  10. Yay! This brings a smile to my depressed (due to not winning CIFellows and not having a job to look forward to) face!

  11. Here is an article on Gordon Brown's apology.