September 11, 2009

Her Majesty's Government Issues An Overdue Apology

During World War II, the Allies were aided in a very substantial way because they could read encoded messages from Japanese and German military authorities sent via radio to units out in the field.

This was possible because of the contributions of a genius, a man of unique mental abilities, creativity, and vision named Alan Turing. In 1932, at the ripe age of twenty, Turing made the daring and brilliant suggestion that by properly structuring mechanical algorithms, a machine could perform complex math. Before this, a "computer" was a human being, a person skilled in making mathematical calculations accurately and (hopefully) quickly.

When war broke out, His Majesty's Government turned to this most brilliant of its subjects and asked for help. Dr. Turing answered the call and was the primary architect of Bletchley Park, which worked with American, Polish, and Chinese cryptographers, and systematically broke nearly every code, allowing the Allies to know what the Axis powers were doing before they did it. Without the contributions of these cryptographers, the Battle of Britain would likely have been lost; Erwin Rommel would not have been stopped in Africa; the Japanese feint to the Aleutians could have succeeded and the Battle of Midway would have been a resounding Japanese victory leading to the seizure of Hawaii; and Japan might have cemented this victory by blockading or even invading Australia.

It might be overstating the case to say that Turing won the war for the Allies single-handedly. He had a lot of help at Bletchley Park and collaborated with some extraordinary minds in the United States. Britain and the U.S. were also blessed with brilliant political leaders with the fortitude to guide their nations through the terrible times of the war, and military commanders with the wisdom to properly use the intelligence Turing and his colleagues supplied. (Intelligence was not, for the most part, shared with the Soviets or the Chinese since the U.S. strategy was, in a broad sense, to allow the Axis powers to bleed themselves white against these nations before moving in with overwhelming power.)

But it would not be overstating the case to say that without Turing and his innovation of computing machines capable of working through the many codes used by the Axis powers that the war would have been much longer, bloodier, and expensive -- and its outcome would have been different, perhaps even so different as to have had a different pattern of victory and defeat at the end of the conflict. A single, brilliant mind can make a profound difference under the right circumstances, and Turing was such a contributor.

It is also almost certainly the case that without Turing, I would not be able to write these words today, and you would not be able to read them today. I write these words on a personal computer, and you are almost certainly reading them on one. Turing is one of the direct ancestors of today's computing age. His pioneering contributions to the creation of devices we now call "computers" would have been made -- later in history and with less efficiency, had a genius of his measure not come along. But Turing was that genius, that singular figure who wove together in his mind disparate threads of thought, technology, theory, and science, and combined them in a new and creative way to leapfrog the world forward.

Turing deserved the highest accolades Britain could offer him. But he didn't get them. Why He was gay. He had been appropriately discreet about his orientation until he got seduced by a charming young hustler -- after their assignation, Turing fell asleep, and the hustler then proceeded with his plan, and with an associate robbed Turing blind. Turing complained about the theft to the police, and wound up getting convicted of the crime of "gross indecency" -- specifically, for having had sex with a man. He could have been incarcerated, but instead was sentenced to chemical castration. Deeply depressed, Turing took his own life in 1954.

Well, Britain has finally got around to apologizing, albeit posthumously, to Turing. Admitting that the shabby treatment given to this national hero was pretty much solely the result of prejudice against his homosexuality, Prime Minister Brown properly lauds him:
For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate - by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices - that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

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