How did Alan Turing go from tragic obscurity to blockbusting international fame?

He's the toast of Hollywood, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game— but what would the eccentric British mathematician make of all this admiration?

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In years to come, they may call it the Turing Enigma: how does an eccentric British mathematician, who died 60 years ago, go from tragic obscurity to blockbusting international fame?

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Let us count the ways that Alan Turing has now been recognised: a prime ministerial apology, a royal pardon, a television movie, a drama-documentary, a musical by the Pet Shop Boys at this year’s Proms, a choral work, an exhibition at the Science Museum, 14 biographies, several blue plaques, three statues, a commemorative stamp and an interactive Google doodle. There is even an Alan Turing version of Monopoly, telling the story of his life.

Conferences in Turing’s name have been held in Manchester, Cambridge, San Francisco, the Philippines, and Madurai, India, in conjunction with the first Asian Gay Pride festival. There’s the Turing machine, a prototype computer, the annual Turing Award for contributions to computer science, Alan Turing Way on the Manchester inner ring road, and a song by the francophone singer/songwriter Salvatore Adamo (Alan et la Pomme).

And now, to cap it all, he’s the toast of Hollywood, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, in The Imitation Game, released on 14 November. 

No mathematician in history has been so extensively revered after his death, for his story has a unique cultural purchase: he is beloved of historians for his role at Bletchley Park, in helping to break the wartime Enigma code, and perhaps shortening the war by as much as four years; among scientists he’s honoured for his mathematical genius and pioneering work on computers and artificial intelligence; he has become a gay icon, who was persecuted and prosecuted for his homosexuality. 

He is even venerated by people (like me) who have only a hazy grip on the science he pioneered, for his is a richly human story: the combination of the heroic and the tragic is an irresistible one. The affection lavished on Turing in his after- life stands, of course, in grim contrast to the peculiarly sad and lonely circumstances of his death. Charged with gross indecency after admitting to a homosexual relationship, he was spared prison on condition he underwent organo-therapy, a form of chemical castration, with devastating mental and physical effects. His security clearance was removed, preventing him from continuing his work at GCHQ, the government code-breaking centre. He was denied entry to the US. 

Prophetically, before starting treatment, he had remarked, with typically dark humour: “No doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who I’ve not found out.” The synthetic oestrogen pills he was made to swallow rendered him impotent, and deeply depressed. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, almost certainly self-administered through a poisoned apple, on 8 June 1954. He was 41. 

What would Turing, who died unhappy and unloved, have made of this fantastic outpouring of admiration and approbation that now surrounds him? He would have been proud, I suspect, though not necessarily very surprised: he was not unaware of his own genius. He might, however, be somewhat embarrassed by the extent to which he has become a poster-boy for the whole of Bletchley Park, an intensely collaborative achievement involving several thousand people – not just mathematicians, but cryptographers, crossword buffs, Egyptologists, museum curators, chess experts, booksellers, linguists, typists and writers. 

It was also a triumph of bureaucracy, an astonishing feat of filing that enabled the code-breakers to control an ocean of paperwork. Turing would have been the first to admit that he didn’t break the code alone – although that is the impression given by The Imitation Game.

Turing was probably on the Asperger’s spectrum, a supposedly “abnormal” person capable of extraordinary mental feats. “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine,” is the catchphrase of the film. But the idea that no one imagined anything of Turing himself is far- fetched: he was elected a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge at 22; everyone imagined that Turin might do great things.

Like all true eccentrics Turing seemed to be quite unaware of his own quirkiness. He cycled around in a gas mask and chained his mug to a radiator to prevent anyone else using it. He buried a stash of silver bars in the grounds of Bletchley Park to be retrieved in the event of a Nazi invasion, but then forgot where he had buried them. A talented long-distance runner, he would sometimes run the 40 miles to London to attend meetings. Yet by Bletchley Park standards of eccentricity, he was only in the middle league. “They were quite mad, some of them, quite potty, but very, very sweet,” one veteran told Sinclair McKay, the biographer of Bletchley.

Whether Turing would have been happy to be held up as a victim of homophobia is less certain. He was an intensely secretive man, as so many of the Bletchley Park group were, supremely intellectually confident but socially awkward, and quite shy. Bletchley Park, like Cambridge University in the 1930s, was a supremely tolerant place, and no one seems to have been interested in, let alone troubled by, Turing’s homosexuality.

He didn’t advertise his sexuality, but he didn’t hide it either. He thought, quite rightly, that his sexual orientation was no one else’s business. But in our more tolerant and open age, it is everyone’s business: in 2006 Turing was named as LGBT History Month Icon; 2010 he was played by Jade Esteban Estrada in the musical ICONS: The Lesbian and Gay History of the World; in Wikipedia, he is listed under “Gay Scientists”, along with 29 other names. 

It is rare to hear a politician say he is pleased to say sorry, but that is what Gordon Brown declared, twice, when offering a public apology to Turing in 2009: “While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him.” In some extraordinary way, this least political of scientists had become a political statement, part of an unlikely bid for political popularity.

In our label-hungry culture, Turing has become many things: the super-geek, the war-winner, the gay pioneer, the Asperger’s mastermind, the political statement, the hero of science, the exemplar of particularly British brand of eccentricity, and the tragic casualty of a bigoted society. He was a mathematician, but also a philosopher, cryptanalyst, logician, and mathematical biologist, a fabulously open and subtle mind destroyed by the closed minds of 1950s prejudice.

But Turing would probably have described himself as one rather straightforward thing: a scientist, searching for big truths in the infinite possibilities of science. “We can only see a short distance ahead,” he once said, “but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.” In a short life, Turing got an astonishing amount done: a scruffy, mumbling, marathon runner who, by the age of 24, had developed the mathematical theory that underpins modern computing.

That is perhaps the ultimate, lasting tribute: every time you turn on your computer, whenever you check your email or use your mobile telephone, you are employing the latterday fruit of ideas imagined by Alan Turing. 

The Imitation game is released in UK cinemas today (Friday 14th November)

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Watch Benedict Cumberbatch at the Imitation Game premiere talking about the importance of Alan Turing