How many years does a man need before he is acquitted of something that cannot be a crime? How many years does a man need to receive apologies from the government for its mistreatment? Probably a century, probably many centuries, probably less than that. In Alan Turing’s case, it took half a century before the British government realised the mistreatment and gross violation of justice that were meted out to him.
Alan Turing has widely been considered as the pioneer of the modern-day computing. Actually, it was Turing’s invented principle that led to the development of the modern-day computers. What Turing proposed is now known as the Turing machine, which is a hypothetical computing machine that can use a predefined set of rules to determine a result from a set of input variables. The desktops, laptops, smart phones and more so, the artificial intelligence that we are exposed to, are all having the founding principle of a Turing machine.
Turing’s other important work that left a prominent mark on the history was the code-breaking during the World War II. Known as German Enigma Code, Turing’s formula could help a team to break it and this proved to be vital for the allies.
But despite his intellectual capacity, Turing, during his life, couldn’t receive much acceptance in his own country. In 1952, Turing was convicted of gross indecency; the reason was his relationship with a man. Homosexuality was not tolerated and Turing had to choose a year-long chemical castration rather than face a prison sentence. He died two years later at the age of 41 years. It was found that the cyanide poisoning that led to his death was a suicide.
And it took almost half a century before the British government could finally understand the grave injustice done to Turing. In 2009, PM Gordon Brown issued an apology on behalf of the British government. Brown admitted that Turing’s treatment was an inhumane activity. "We're sorry, you deserved so much better," Brown wrote in a statement. Brown also told that the country owed the brilliant mathematician a huge debt who had to receive horrifying and utterly unfair treatment.
Again in 2013, the Queen officially pardoned him. This is of course too late and too little. But such state recognition of Turing’s mistreatment helped pave the way for subsequent government pardoning of nearly 50,000 homosexual men that had been historically cautioned or convicted for the practice of homosexuality.
This year, the British government has decided to have Alan Turing on the new design of Bank of England’s 50-pound note.
The banknote character advisory committee had over 989 dead scientists from which one had to be selected for this note. The list included doyens like Rosalind Franklin, Dorothy Hodgkin and Srinivasa Ramanujan etc. But the committee decided to choose Alan Turing.
The choice of Alan Turing is not only the recognition of his scientific temper, but also a step towards accepting the practice of homosexuality in England. It is important because of the apparent presence of homophobia in the society. A recent survey showed that two-thirds of UK’s LGBTQA+ community are still afraid to hold hands in public fearing negative reactions. The survey also showed that four out of every 10 people belonging to the LGBTQA+ have experienced hate incidences of some form.
Worldwide, there are 72 countries where same-sex relations are still illegal and there are 11 such countries where homosexuality is punishable by death. Honouring Turing sends a strong message not only acknowledging his contribution to mathematics and computing, but also for equal treatment of people of same-sex relations.