Alan Turing at age 16

I’ve been interested in Alan Turing ever since I first encountered his work in Gödel, Escher, Bach, a book I read obsessively in my teenage years, so the moment I heard there would be a movie about him I started lobbying Joy to see it with me (we don’t go to the movies very often). It didn’t hurt that Turing would be played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is starting to impress me as one of the best actors of my lifetime, and sure enough, we saw The Imitation Game last week and his performance is humane, subtle, and heartbreaking. It does him a disservice to suggest that the role of Turing is an easy jump from his Sherlock Holmes. Sure, they’re both geniuses drawn to socially-useful work yet painfully lacking in social skills (the writers hint that a modern-day diagnosis would place them both on the autistic spectrum), but Cumberbatch, who must have been aware of the trap as he prepared for this role, never mixes them up. His Turing is his own person.

At the time Douglas Hofstadter wrote Gödel. . ., the story of the breaking of the Enigma code was still classified. We now know that Turing was not just a brilliant mathematician, originator of computer science, and pioneer of the concept of artificial intelligence, but also a behind-the-scenes hero of World War II, and it was no doubt the fact that the Bletchley Park codebreakers knocked probable years off the war and saved millions of lives that got Turing pardoned, over the heads of the House of Lords, by Queen Elizabeth. Of course “pardon” is a legal term; what he really deserved was an apology, as he had done nothing wrong: he was just a gay man at a time when his government regarded acts of love between people of the same sex as “gross indecency.” What the rest of the world lost by Turing’s being forced to choose among prison, a mind stunted by chemical castration, or the option he took, suicide, we can only imagine. Or, given the astounding originality of his thought, it would be more accurate to say that we simply can’t imagine it.

That loss, the misery he suffered, and the knowledge that it’s no easier to be gay today in most countries than it was for Turing in 1952, left me feeling shaky as the theater lights went up. So did the information that over 49,000 people (all men, from what I’ve read) were prosecuted in the UK before the “gross indecency” statute was terminated. Turing’s pardon was won because of a petition launched on the internet and his accomplishments, but he’s just one of the victims of this stupid law, and the argument made against the pardon that “these acts were illegal at the time” just adds insult to the injury against them all. Of course they were illegal–but some laws are nothing more than the enshrinement of injustice, and the least we can do, after repealing them, is to apologize to everyone they’ve harmed.

So I was very pleased to learn that Cumberbatch has thrown all of his Oscar-nominee influence into getting an official pardon for everyone convicted under those laws; Stephen Fry has enthusiastically joined him. You can add your name to these more famous ones, as I did, at the petition site.