The BBC reports on a Turing scholar’s recent claims that by today’s standard of evidence, there’s reason to doubt the commonly-held belief that the famed computing pioneer committed suicide in response to government persecution over his homosexuality. To be clear, he does not claim to have disproved the suicide theory — only that the cyanide poisoning that killed Turing could well have been an accident caused by his careless at-home experimentation with dangerous chemicals.The narrative that has emerged over the past few decades around the legend of Alan Turing concerns an interesting combination of two historically-downtrodden societal underdogs: nerds and homosexuals. It’s obvious why Turing is a hero to nerds, and the story of Turing’s fate resonates strongly with the nerd inferiority complex. Here’s a man who clearly deserves a major portion of credit for defeating the Axis powers during WWII, and he did it through sheer feats of nerdly brilliance. He took on the best minds of Nazi Germany and pwned them. But unlike Field Marshal Montgomery or General Patton or Admiral Nimitz, Turing and the rest of the Bletchley Park mathematicians and cryptanalysts had to operate in complete secrecy, so to receive recognition for their efforts, they depended on the government doing a bit of public relations on their behalf, much as the US government did for Robert Oppenheimer, who achieved a much more sinister scientific achievement in the creation of the atomic bomb.
But rather than use its efforts to make sure that the skeletons in Turing’s closet never eclipsed his reputation, as the US had done in whitewashing rocketry pioneer and Nazi Wernher von Braun’s in the post-war period, the UK government allowed Alan Turing to be investigated and convicted of homosexuality (a crime in UK a the time) and subjected to humiliating “treatment.” It would have been easy for the government to protect its national hero, even while continuing to outlaw homosexual practices. It’s clear that the UK government couldn’t be troubled to lift a finger to protect Turing.
The reason that this story resonates strongly with the nerd psyche is that it hits so many hot buttons at once:
- World War II was won with math and science as much as with guns and ships, and there were men and women, like Turing, who were been brainy and maybe even introverted and socially awkward, but they were great heroes.
- They got very little credit for what they achieved, considering their impact. Like the patron saint of nerds, Nikola Tesla, Turing and other techies failed to get their due recognition. Even leaders like Douglas MacArthur, whose actual war records were mixed, have statues and monuments and bridges named after them. Nerds get short shrift.
- Not only did Turing not get enough recognition, he was actively persecuted by his government.
- So much so that he killed himself.
The actual reason for the persecution doesn’t really matter all that much for the pro-nerd narrative. What really matters is that he received a slap in the face instead of a bridge named after him.
Of course the other constituency who has made a hero out of Turing is LGBT people. Of course for them the reason for Turing’s persecution is of paramount importance, and the fact that homosexuality was illegal, and that the government was empowered to force chemical castration on any human being because of their sexual orientation, is the real outrage. Turing was just one particularly poignant example from among thousands of victims. Many people who have felt rejected and received abuse at the hands of individuals and governments alike can relate to Turing’s story, and they might think, “If a man like Turing, a hero of World War II, could have been persecuted like that, it must show how much people hate us.” For some, the story illustrates how far we’ve come since the 1950’s, but also how far we still have to go.
So what if Turing didn’t commit suicide? (And it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure). It would remove a bit of the drama from the story. If Turing was persecuted but remained in good spirits despite that, then accidentally poisoned himself out of carelessness, it certainly steals the tragic dÃ©nouement. But it doesn’t really change the story. Turing is still a pioneer and a titan in computing history, and a bona fide hero of World War II. Nerds of all stripes failed to get their due recognition until recently. Homosexuals were indeed disgracefully persecuted in the UK in the 50s, and continued to be persecuted around the world.
Personally, as much as I understand how the tragic end reinforces Turing’s eligibility to be canonized by both nerds and LGBT activists, I hope that his poisoning was actually an accident. Because that would mean that, although we lost a great man too early, instead of suffering psychic agony in his last moments, Turing spent his final evening tinkering in his workshop, then lay down in his bed and passed away peacefully in his sleep. Isn’t that how all nerds would prefer to die?