Thursday 13 February 2014

Why did Alan Turing die?

Alan Turing: Unlocking the EnigmaThe Lib Dem peer Lord Sharkey introduced a private members bill last summer to give the great mathematician, code-breaker and pioneer computer scientist Alan Turing a royal pardon.  He had been convicted under the Labouchere Amendment which criminalised homosexual acts between consenting males.

He was put on probation, on condition he underwent chemical treatment, and found himself isolated by the establishment.  He killed himself two years later, in 1954.

I have been writing about Turing for years, and have now written a short biography of him, published yesterday as a Kindle Single.  He is in some ways the creator of the modern world, in more ways than one.  

You can find out more in Alan Turing: Unlocking the Enigma.  It is a fascinating story, reaching a crescendo in the intensity of cracking the Enigma code during the Second World War.

But what I found particularly difficult to understand was precisely why Turing died at the early age of 41.  This has been complicated by the debate about whether this was indeed suicide, or whether it was accidental death.

There have inevitably been dark internet rumours that he was in some way ‘disposed of’ by the authorities. There is no evidence for this. Quite the reverse: the manner of his death, if it was not an accident, was so personal and idiosyncratic, that it is extremely hard to imagine anyone else devising it. 

I think the answer lies in the strange paranoia of the time.  The defection of Burgess and Maclean led to a serious panic inside the UK security services, driven in part by the furious Americans who – under the influence of Senator Joe McCarthy and his anti-communist crusade– had serious doubts about whether their secrets were safe with the British. 

 In 1952, the UK government decided on a deep in-depth investigation into the lives and backgrounds of people before appointing them to sensitive positions. Positive vetting was introduced as part of a deal between Britain, France and the USA. 

 It was widely acknowledge that vetting had to go beyond communist sympathies, and go into what the report official report into the Burgess and Maclean affair called “character defects” – failings such as “drunkenness, addiction to drugs, homosexuality, or any loose living”.

Turing's biographer Andrew Hodges hints at the crisis, explaining that Turing’s holidays in Norway and Greece in 1953, dangerously near the Iron Curtain, could “not have been calculated to calm the nerves of security officers”. That must be an understatement.

There is no way of knowing exactly what prompted Turing’s suicide, but we can be reasonably sure that the security services were extremely worried about him. It was already clear how vital computing was to cryptography and for speeding up the exhausting calculations for nuclear weaponry. Turing was probably the leading theoretician in this field in the world. 

If the British were relaxed about the possibility of his defection, knowing that he had almost no interest in politics, then the Americans would not be. The pressure on the British was huge. Not only could they not risk losing Turing, they could not be seen to be risking losing him. 

Something had to be done to rein him in. Yet, what hold could they have over someone like Turing to prevent him wandering abroad and getting into compromising situations? Cancelling his security clearance would not help. Nor would appealing to his better nature. Nor would close surveillance help, and we know that he was under close surveillance for this period.

They could remove his passport, but that might have had the effect of precipitating exactly the crisis they feared most.

Was it possible that the security services were so worried about his next summer holiday (it was June) that they threatened to tell his mother about his sexual encounters? Did they threaten to remove him from his academic posts? Did they threaten to prosecute him if he went abroad again? 

We have no idea, but something may have pushed Turing over the edge. Turing has been portrayed as a victim of sexual intolerance. He certainly was, but – as Hodges hints so eloquently in his biography, without quite spelling it out – he was also a victim of the Cold War.

More about this in the book.

The government has bypassed Lord Sharkey's bill and given Turing the pardon anyway.  But somehow the controversy about one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century isn't over yet.

No comments: