Too little too late but it’s better than nothing

The British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has publically apologized for the treatment handed out to computer pioneer Alan Turing because of his homosexuality. It’s too little too late but it’s better than nothing. Now we go for that posthumous knighthood!

via John Pieret at Thoughts in a Haystack the full text:

2009 has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. 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.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

Gordon Brown


Filed under History of Computing, Odds and Ends

5 responses to “Too little too late but it’s better than nothing

  1. Matthew

    I can’t find an e-mail contact, so I guess I’ll leave this here as a comment …

    I enjoy reading your blog and was wondering if you could make some reading suggestions. If you had to list some books on the history of science that would give people a proper view of the history of science, what would they be? I’m thinking of books that will allow someone to respond to things like Grayling’s rant against the Jesuits and Kuhn’s claims about Copernican astronomy, and in general any of the many misunderstandings about the history. I want the history, not the myths, as you put it. I realize that the history of science covers at least 2,500 years, so perhaps you’d want to split it into periods. I really don’t mind a substantial reading list!


  2. Sorry, I don’t think it exists yet – the subject’s only just emerging from the dogmatic attitudes generated in the Darwinian debate perpetrated through twenties and fifties by the Cholmondeley-Warners who condemned Turing because he wasn’t (or perhaps because he WAS) one of them.
    Another problem is that much of the history is in Continental Europe, and not therefore recorded in England, and much of that was deliberately omitted from the historical record by the Catholic victors of the 30 Years War/War of the Spanish Succession. However, the source documents do to a great extent survive and must firstly by accurately translated and then compared to see how ideas spread. We know, for instance, that certain people appear to have been pivotal, and working from them outwards will give a fuller understanding. There are two possible approaches: starting from the existing acquis, the existing corpus of knowledge, and then eliminating from it the anachronous subsequent interpretations of the Enlightenment onwards, or building from the roots forwards. The latter may in fact be easier, as we are starting with the relatively small libraries of Charlemagne and Alfred’s Europe, and then building forwards as fresh discoveries and the Arab translations of ancient Greek texts reached Europe through Spain and the Provencale cultures of the Northern Mediterranean. This will, however, run into the spiritual obscuratism of the early Kaballists who were one of the important channels wereby this thinking was disseminated.
    To a great extent, modern study is taking the conservative – and to my mind undaring – way ot by spending their time researching Newton’s writings, not that these are unimportant, but that they are quite late in the timeline. A bolder approach would take da Vinci more seriously, read against Cornelius Agrippa, and the content of early mediaeval romances, which sometimes cast tantalising glimpses of things seemingly commonplace but anachronistic to our understanding of the timescale.
    As an example, a couple of postings ago I commented on the Hyperotomachia, c1495. In it, we find descriptions of doors held open by magnets – I have just such a fire-door ten feet from my office – and elephants being reduced, optically, to the size of ants and vice-versa.

    We mistake the mediaeval mind at our peril. Even now, our cutting-edge computer systems are still wrestling with semantic quandries central to Abelard and de Champeaux’ great debates of 1095 and 1108: their problem was that they too were dealing with dogmaticists intellectually incapable of following the debate, feudal overlords whose brains were befuddled by one too many bonks on the behelmed bonce to be funny – the Mohammed Alis of their day. Unfortunately, they tended to be the top men. Go research Gilles de Rais’s sad fate as a case in point.
    There are, however, certain waypoints. As regards the Jewish schools, Gershom Scholen’s Alchemy and Kabbalah is the master text. I’m not talking about the red-string-thing here, in passing – he rightly takes the mick out of the origins of that school, giving chapter and verse why they’re barking.
    Many of the Enlightenment breakthroughs came from musical theory. To this end, Yale’s Professor of the History of Music, Craig Wright, fairly recently published what I consider to be a masterpiece in getting a handle on these questions, namely The Maze and The Warrior. To understand this, you will have to set your post-Enlightenment undestanding to the side for the moment and look at the world through the eyes of a mediaeval academic. His studies started at 11, having survived childhood. His eldest brother was off squiring, learning how to take said bonks on the bonce and still hold onto Dad’s fief. His second bruv was off bossing a bunch of dimwitted monks, and the third held in reserve – often tanked to the gills in the 1192 Reserve – at a University somewhere. Much like our current crop, truth to tell.
    What did he start learning? Trivia, or how to hold up your end of a debate. Once he could show he could argue logically, comprehensibly, and persuasively, he was allowed to tackle the quadrivium, arithmetic, geometry, music and star-lore (so stated to get rid of the Enlightenment overloading of the true term, astrology). And after that, the pinnacle of studies, pure theology.
    Each of these higher domains was rigidly structured – for example, as theological text had to examine the same object from four different angles, the literal import, the typological import, the anagogical import and the moral import, the whole forming a coherent structure of literal foundation supporting typological walls within which we live, crowned by the anagogical outlook, the entire thing coloured by the anagogical. For a masterful example and exposition, I refer you to Thom Merten’s edition of Ruusbroec’s van den geesteliken tabernakel, dating from the second half of the fourteenth century. OK, it’s not science, but then go read Wright and you’ll understand how the musical viewpoint fed the mathematics of Galileo, Boyle and Newton through the work done in musical theory by Athanasius Kircher, working with Vincenzo Galileo and Erycus Puteanus in Brussels at the Spanish Imperial Court. We must think in a second framework here, therefore.
    Scolen paints another structure yet for us to understand the works of Llull, for example, and we face yet another in the Arabic colouration of the ancient Greek texts of the Girona school. Not, of course, to forget the original Fathers such as Jerome and Boethius…
    Somehow, perhaps the Newtonian introspectives may be right after all, it may be better to know everything about nothing rather than knowing next-to-nothing about everything, Rahere’s failing. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and if this sparrow and others around can fly upon the backs of these eagles to get a further view yet, all it takes is a bit of courage neither to look down nor yet to emulate Icarus, and a lot of flapping to cover the extra ground.

    • After sleeping on my initial reply, I have come to what looks like an important conclusion: we can apply Heisenberg steady-state uncertainty to these cases. In a word, we can see three states for any proposition: true, false, and indeterminate.
      The Realist has a bipolar viewpoint: the indeterminate is considered false as it cannot be touched at the point in time the decision is made. However, this scenario refutes human inventiveness, and would condemn our society to regress to savagery. To the Realist, Schroedinger’s Cat is dead, in fact it never even existed, which we know not to be an absolute by the same pragmatic test the Realist constrains himself: in our pragmatic physical reality, the Heisenberg model exists at a fundamental level, it may even be a Universal, but even at the occasional level, it certainly exists. QED the Realist School, that of de Champeaux and the Roman theologians whose Inquisition put many of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century researchers to the Test, falls.
      And that’s important, as it exposes the fundamental flaw in the Fundamentalist Creationist arguments, namely, Doubt. In the Realist framework, that is an essential theological prerequisite, balancing the indeterminate lacuna to a certain extent – the ID argument falls because it is simply and plainly unreasonable.
      That does not mean Rahere refutes the entire portfolio – indeed, very much to the contrary, the very logic requires an absence of Chaos, and Rahere’s personal experience goes way beyond that in recognising a Creator. It’s just that Rahere does not identify him in Archbishop Usher, nor indeed in the roots of Genesis, themselves indeterminate – again, the failing being the refusal to refute doctrine in the face of ambiguity, in this instance, between the chronology of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2:5. On an anagogical scale, as that was their chosen ground, let me track that through figuratively to the dogmatic foundation of the Ascension (Acts 1:3) and the incompatible claim of the same author (Luke 24:50-51) that it happened on Easter Sunday. To be straight, dogma is dangerous if it cannot be proved, both on a theological schema and in raw logic: to take it one step further, an eye-witness, John, states there was no ascension (John 21:25) and is independantly corroborated by Suetonius (Claudius 25) who reports Christ’s presence in Rome in AD39, six years after the Ressurrection. Suetonius uses the same spelling used by his contemporary Tacitus, “Chrestus”, which is indubitably linked to the start of the faith. The very fact of Suetonius’ failure to qualify the identity of the person reported means we can identify this person with the founder of the faith, a well-known identity at the time Suetonius was writing, as Christianity was at that time in the middle of its first big growth phase.
      Please do not impute too much into this: there can be a dichotomy between physical and spiritual existence. My point is that the black-and-white Realists are fundamentally wrong, and I’ve chosen some fundamental grounds to demonstrate the fact because of their behaviour in defending their dogma.

  3. Returning to the original posting, given Ada Lovelace’s rank, don’t you feel Turing deserves a bit more? It’s too late to talk of a posthumous Nobel Prize, and in any case the Turing Award is the Nobel Prize of Computing, which says it all in that respect, really.

  4. Just read David Lagercrantz’s new book (published in English in 2015) entitled “Fall of Man in Wilmslow”. It’s a novel about the events surrounding Turin’s death and the police investigation of his “suicide”, with interesting insights into Turin’s work.

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