Saturday 22 February 2014

Why are we so fascinated by Alan Turing?

Benedict Cumberbatch captures "vulnerability, genius and arrogance" of Alan Turing, says producer
It is now 102 years since he was born, or nearly, but this really appears to be Alan Turing's moment.

Not only was the government moved to give him a pardon, rather belatedly, for his conviction for homosexual acts back in 1952, but the stills have been released to great excitement for Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of the man in the film The Imitation Game.

It is even being talked about as an Oscar contender for 2015.

Now even the hotels of Manchester, where he lived and died, are joining in.  Jurys Inn Manchester has just published their own guide to his life.

What is it about Turing that speaks so much to our own age?  On the face of it, this is quite simple.  He was brave enough to be himself about his sexuality - in fact, he managed to flout respectability, to the frustration of his mother, for most of his life.  He famously wore a gas mask on his bike to avoid the pollen, and held his trousers up with a piece of string.

As the father of the computer age, and the great prophet of computability, he is a good nominee for the creator of our world.  He was a problem-solver, the breaker of the unbreakable Enigma code, when our age is so full of uncrackable problems.

I've had the chance to think about this myself, because the short biography I wrote about Turing has just been published as a Kindle Single (Alan Turing: Unlocking the Enigma).

My own feeling is that nothing about Turing is quite straightforward.  Confident in his own abilities, amusing and witty with friends, yet shy and uncertain in company, except with the few people he trusted. Relying on relentless logic, yet also managing an almost mystical ability to intuit mathematical proofs.

He combined a rigid clarity and scepticism about human specialness, but he was also fascinated by fairy tales and was famously obsessed with the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.   One of his closest friends was Alan Garner, later the author of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

The overwhelming feeling about Turing, reading the details of his life – and his mother wrote a detailed tribute after his death – is just how English he was.

Many of his fellow countrymen failed to understand him at all, and he worked part of his career with American and German mathematicians at Princeton University, but he was deeply English in his sheer practicality, for the literalism with which he turned intellectual ideas into practical projects, and for his empiricism.

He was a true successor to the great British empiricists, John Locke and David Hume, and the exclusion of every consideration except sense data. It is a theme that keeps returning in his life and work.

But I think our fascination may be more subtle than that.  We are beginning to regard Turing is the very apotheosis of a man of genius crushed by the petty mores of his own day, and perhaps that is a little how we all regard ourselves.  No wonder we admire him: he was the real thing.

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