Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Don't ask, don't tell

Yesterday's whimsical post on downloading a soul into a computer prompts a reprise of a more serious story I told here some years ago. I am thinking of the life and career of Alan Turing, one of the best scientific minds of the 20th century, sometimes called the Founder of Computer Science.

In 1928, as a dreamy schoolboy of 16, he fell powerfully under the spell of a slightly older school chum, Christopher Morcom. There was nothing explicitly sexual about their relationship. The boys were friends and intellectual comrades. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Turing was deeply in love.

In 1930, Morcom suddenly fell ill and died. Turing was shattered. He turned his attentions to the question of how the human mind -- and Christopher's mind in particular -- was embodied in matter. Could there be any way in which a mind might survive the death of the body?

According to his biographer, Turing's longing for his dead friend sparked a lifelong interest in the mechanical embodiment of thought.

During World War II, Turing turned his considerable genius to cryptoanalysis, the breaking of codes. He was a leader of the British team at Bletchley Park that broke the famous "Enigma" code, which the German high command used to communicate with its Atlantic U-boat fleet. The breaking of the code is generally credited with turning the Battle of the Atlantic in favor of the Allies, and perhaps deciding the outcome of the war.

After the war, Turing's brilliant theoretical and practical work on the use of mechanical and electronic machinery for breaking complex codes helped advance the development of the first electronic computers.

Always in the background was the issue of his sexuality. In early 1952 the police came to his house at his request to investigate a burglary. They discovered something that turned out to be far more serious -- Turing's sexual relationship with another man -- at the time, a criminal offense.

He did not deny the relationship. It was inconceivable to Turing that his private life might be of interest to Her Majesty's government. He was arrested, brought to trial, and convicted. As an alternative to prison, which would have interrupted his scientific work, he agreed to a course of hormone injections to neutralize his libido -- a kind of chemical castration. He chose, says his biographer, "thinking" and sacrificed "feeling."

No one knows exactly what or how he suffered in the period that followed. On June 8, 1954, he was found dead by his housecleaner, a half-eaten, cyanide-spiked apple at his bedside. The coroner's verdict was suicide. He was 41 years old.