Sunday, June 1, 2008

Turing and the Poison Apple

Okay, I'll stop it with the Bletchley posts after this one. But the story told by one of the guides - of the death of computing pioneer Alan Turing, by cyanide-laced poison apple - stuck with me, and deserves repeating.

Turing was, from the beginning, an outside. His several biographies point out his eccentricities in youth, including the death of his best friend (and rumored first love), Christopher Morcom, from tuberculosis.

My guide painted a similar picture of Turing as that painted in his bios - "scruffy", "loathe to wash", "difficult to be around", and the indecipherable (for me, anyway) "a man who likes his holidays, if you know what I mean".

But a few years after, after rising fast through Princeton and Cambridge, Turing, as everyone knows, helped save the free world. His breakthroughs in thinking led to the cracking of the Enigma and Lorenz ("Tunny") codes, the creation of the world's first programmable computer, and his last paper on computing, "Computer Machinery and Intelligence", published in 1950, was the first to propose a series of standardized tests for artificial intelligence.

As I walked around Hut 8 last week at Bletchley Park - still largely in the same condition it was when occupied by its chain-smoking mathematicians and crossword-solvers - I found myself becoming angry at the story of what happened to Turing later - after so my lives had been saved, and so much had been contributed to the future of computer science.

As the story goes, in the very early part of Bletchley Park's formation, before frivolities such as cinema were curtailed, Turing had gone to see the Walt Disney cartoon feature Snow White, and was much taken with the scene in the movie involving the Wicked Witch's Poison Apple.

According to the accounts of at least two historians, Turing left the movie much enamored with the story, and quoting one line over and over:

"Dip the apple in the brew, let the sleeping death seep through".

These were to prove to be prophetic words.

Sixteen years after he started his ground-breaking work for MI5, in 1952, police received a phone call from Turing complaining that things had been stolen from his house by 19 year old Arnold Murray, a young man he'd "been seeing", and an accomplice.

When questioned about Murray, Turing admitted, naively, that yes, he was a homosexual, and he had been having a relationship with the younger man.

The police pounced. And despite all Turing had contributed during the war, and despite his OBE (or perhaps because of it), prosecution for public indecency (and a public trial) followed.

During the trial, the press took him apart. Upon his conviction, Turing's GCHQ security clearances were withdrawn. Hormone treatments involving injections of estrogen were ordered by the judge and resulted in Turing growing breasts and becoming obese, depressed, and ultimately, suicidal.

Turing did struggle to publish a few additional works - including a paper of the first linking the Fibonacci Series with the structure of plants - but one night in 1954, he finally decided he'd had enough.

The next morning, Turing's housekeeper found Turing dead, a half-eaten, cyanide-laced apple beside his bed.

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