~ Posted by Samantha Weinberg, June 21st 2012
The brilliant mathematician Alan Turing, born 100 years ago this week, was head of the team that broke the Enigma codes used by the German U-boats in the second world war. But he was also homosexual, at a time when that was illegal, which meant the man who helped the Allies win the war was deemed a risk to national security.
The new exhibition at the Science Museum, "Codebreaker: Alan Turing's Life and Legacy", which opens today, is surprising on several levels. Firstly, for what is not there: there is no Bombe, the huge decrypting machine designed by Turing that lived in the sheds at Bletchley Park, turning day and night as it tried every combination of letters and numbers to crack the German codes. Its absence, however, makes more room—alongside the codebreaking machines and early computers—for the personal side of Turing's life.
Particularly telling is the neat hand-written letter by the young Turing to the mother of a dead school friend. "Dear Mrs Morcom, I want to say how sorry I am ..." Christopher Morcom was a year older than Turing at Sherborne and when he died, aged 18, of tuberculosis, Turing was devastated. "I simply worshipped the ground he trod on," he wrote, “a thing which I did not make much attempt to disguise." He vowed to put "as much energy if not as much interest into my work as if he were alive, because that is what he would like me to do." Turing's work on computers and artificial intelligence was not unrelated to this idea that someone's mind might exist independently from their body.
The exhibits that tell the story of his suicide at the age of 41 are just as moving. In 1952 Turing was arrested for "gross indecency" and offered a choice of sentences—a year’s imprisonment or a course of a female hormone drug designed to dampen his libido. He took the latter. A small 5mg bottle of his "cure", little pink pills of stilboestral, is on display. Immediately next to it, there’s another chilling exhibit: a reproduction of the doctor's post-mortem report from June 8th 1954. The spidery writing describes the effects of the dose of cyanide he had taken ("the characteristic smell of bitter almonds"). The dose was far too large to be contained within the half-eaten apple that was discovered by his bedside. Far from being the theatrical gesture that this was widely held to be, it's more probable that the apple was there to take away the taste.
Samantha Weinberg is assistant editor of Intelligent Life. Her recent posts for the Editors' Blog include The Glastonbury of science and The professor and his robot