Back to Pointing At Science
It is sixty-one years ago this month since the great mathematician and father of modern computing Alan Turing took his own life. He would have been celebrating his 103rd birthday this month had he survived – and being a homosexual before the time when single sex parents could have children, he may possibly have lived long enough to blow out the candles on his birthday cake – after all there is a fair amount of evidence that suggests the rigours of family life may shorten lifespan – just thinking of my family supports this; I had a great Aunt who never married and lived well into her hundreds, when all her procreating siblings died decades earlier!
Turing died in what may look outwardly as a ‘fairy tale’ manner: He ate an apple laced with cyanide (echoes of Snow White?). The reason – ultimately and sadly -was all related to his sexuality. He stoically endured chemical castration by oestrogen injections after being convicted of indecent acts, and this debilitated him physically and emotionally. Amazingly he continued to work during this and even produced some of his finest work while being ‘tortured’ in this way by the British authorities. However what ultimately led to Turing taking his own life was apparently the revoking of his security clearance and passport by British authorities, which prevented him working and traveling to more gay-friendly nations in Europe.
Turing is one of my science heroes. There are two reasons really: First he is one of the ultimate applied scientists, in my mind he ranks alongside Fleming (whose team discovered penicillin) in terms of the impact his science had on his generation. Anyone who has watched the fabulous movie “The Imitation Game” will know that his efforts to decipher the Nazi ENIGMA code are widely believed to have shortened World War II by at least two years and saved millions of lives. What makes this all the more laudable is that he never received any public praise for this work because it was top secret! (although he did later receive an OBE for his work at the Foreign Office). Secondly, he was a brilliant interdisciplinary scientist, and indeed a quick gander at Google Scholar reveals his most widely cited publication is in the life sciences, describing the chemical basis for morphogenesis. I think that the APPLIED nature of his work, and his INTERDISCIPLINARY contributions, make him a real role model for today’s scientists, at a time when we need to be more mindful of end user value to our work –especially to the taxpayers who fund it!
I have started a call via twitter for an Alan Turing Medal in Interdisciplinary and Applied Science (#turingmedal). There is already a Turing Award in computing, but my idea is for this new award to more clearly celebrate the spirit of his achievements in that interdisciplinary and applied area.