This is the second in my series of pioneering heroes and innovators.
The remarkable mathematical genius Alan Turing, known to his colleagues as the Prof, was just as much an enigma as the codes he decrypted. Winston Churchill said of him that he and his team shortened the war in Europe by about two years due to his special interest and sterling work in code breaking and deciphering.
He was ahead of his time in many ways. His decryption work and development of mathematical calculation techniques was revolutionary. He is known as the father of computer science, so we have a great deal to thank him for.
He didn’t get the recognition he deserved during his lifetime because of the prevailing government attitude towards homosexuality in those not very far off days. You had to remain deeply closeted or face ridicule as well as the long pointing finger of the law. Government interference in what went on in the bedrooms of its citizens was responsible for his unjustified fall from grace. The court gave him the option of prison time or taking estrogen medication. He opted for the latter, but the side effects of what amounted to a form of chemical castration caused him great distress.
Opinion is divided as to whether his untimely death shortly before his 42nd birthday was suicide or accidental, although most theories suggest the former. Considering he had been decorated by the King for services to his country, he must have felt that the system had let him down big time, and there was little relief for him in sight in 1954.
In 1952 the situation in the UK was pretty much as it was here in our own country, where the government considered sex across racial lines, as well as many other types of sex to be immoral, and spent many man hours chasing after people of the wrong colour in the wrong bedrooms. Had it happened twenty years later Alan Turing would have had no problem.
Numerous posthumous awards were granted to Alan Turing but unfortunately too late for him to appreciate.
Like me he was a keen runner and a far better one than I ever was. He thought nothing of running the 64 km to London from Bletchley Park when wanting to save on train fares during the lean war years. He almost qualified for the Olympic marathon team in 1948, but was hampered by an injury. He could run the 42.2 km in 2 hours 46 minutes: a brilliant time by any standards. He was also an avid cyclist.
Running was not the popular sport it became in the 1980s and 1990s, and long distance runners were seldom seen tramping the roadsides of the 1940s. The loneliness of the long distance runner was accurate, unlike today where runners are usually in the midst of a writhing throng of sweaty trainer-clad figures during most races.
His brilliant mind and his athletic body were a harmonious machine and he utilized his talents to the full. He spent a lot of time on philosophical speculation, partly triggered by the death of his best friend, Christopher Morcom, from bovine tuberculosis in 1930.
He considered marrying brilliant fellow mathematician Joan Clarke since he was very fond of her but was honest enough to admit later to her that it wouldn’t work out due to his being gay. She accepted this with equanimity and they remained firm platonic friends.
It is extremely likely that Alan Turing would have possibly have been diagnosed with high functioning Aspergers today, due to his single minded zeal in code cracking and dedication to his chosen field of interest. Although he worked as part of a team, he worked well on his own. Even if he wasn’t on the spectrum, he was certainly atypical and not neurotypical.
I think he would been one of the most interesting people to talk to and to learn from, should I have had that opportunity.