The Gay Humanist

Spring 1985

Alan Turing: The Enigma of Intelligence, by Andrew Hodges

reviewed by Madeleine Simms

If the code-breaking carried out at Bletchley Park during the war was as vital to the war effort as is now, more than 40 years later, being suggested, then Alan Turing is one of the great unsung war heroes – his importance comparable to a Mountbatten or even a Montgomery. He is also an important figure in modern mathematics and a founding father of the modern computer. At the same time, he was an open atheist, and an acknowledged homosexual, long before being gay was publicly acceptable, and if this were not enough, he was deeply eccentric and unworldly. It did not occur to him to conceal his views or his sexual tendency, unlike his smoother and more sophisticated post-Bloomsbury Cambridge contemporaries. Their homosexual proclivities were discreetly concealed except among their nearest and dearest. Turing, however, was all his life an awkward outsider who never learned to adjust to the demands of convention.

His genius was recognised early. Even his nursery school teacher remarked on it. But being “too clever by half” is no sort of recommendation to the English Establishment. In consequence, he had the usual sort of miserable public school career at Sherborne that we are familiar with from countless inter-war biographies. His headmaster wrote of him: “He should have more esprit de corps” – something Turing was never able to acquire. His headmaster also observed: “If he is to be solely a Scientific Specialist, he is wasting his time at a public school.” Which was probably true, and an indictment of the public school system.

By comparison, Cambridge was sweetness and light. His eccentricity was well enough tolerated there and his genius rewarded with a King’s Fellowship. But only during the war were the rules cast aside and space created in which he could flourish and use his mind and talents to the full. The national emergency was sufficiently desperate to overlook his oddness in return for his genius. But once the crisis was over, there was really no proper place for him. He was involved in a homosexual scandal, had to appear in court, was advised to plead guilty, received very dubious “hormone therapy”. (Who were the doctors who were prepared to administer this quackery? They are not named and should be.) Soon after, Alan Turing committed suicide. About one quarter of this book can be read with profit only by mathematicians and logicians. But this should deter no-one. The other three quarters constitutes a fascinating piece of social and intellectual history, and draws a sympathetic portrait of a remarkable man, whose religious scepticism was an integral part of his character and intellect.

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