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10 Downing Street: Treatment of Alan Turing was "appalling" (number10.gov.uk)
237 points by handelaar on Sept 10, 2009 | hide | past | web | favorite | 81 comments

I've been saying for a while that Turing's premature death set back mathematics by years, if not decades. :(

Discrimination still happens to a large enough degree (gender, race and class) that we're shooting ourselves collectively in the foot by not enabling people to contribute as much to society as they are able.

>I've been saying for a while that Turing's premature death set back mathematics by years, if not decades. :(

That, as the British say, is utter bollocks. His contributions to Mathematics were done before the war. Plus he was pass 40 when he died...

This apology was long overdue. I'm glad that Britain finally came out with it.

Complete speculation but it's possible that, being Freudian for a moment, the childhood loss and trauma that led Turing to pick-up teenage boys for casual sex was the driving force that pushed him to pursue mathematics to such a degree.

What "childhood loss and trauma" was it that led Turing to find nineteen-year-olds attractive, exactly? I'm pretty sure most people find people in their late teens and early 20s attractive.

Complete speculation here, but your use of "boys" makes it sound like you conflate Turing's actions with paedophilia. The ongoing and statistically inaccurate association of homosexuality with paedophilia is one of the reasons public actions like this one affirming that one can be both homosexual and legally and morally respectable are still necessary.

The reference to Turings childhood loss was to Chris Morcom, the first person Alan Turing fell in love with while at school. But Turing was already recognized as quite gifted at that time. It is possible, but not proven that because Morcom was slightly older he might have pulled Alan Turing along in his slipstream.

I just found this:


From which I gather it influenced his views on religion strongly but it didn't detract from his other work.

Most sexual relationships, feel free to prove me wrong, don't have a 20+ year age gap. Sorry but in my locality teenagers (yes 19 is teenaged) are referred to as "teenage boys" (as opposed to teenage girls, boys being a male descriptor) or "youths" as well as "young men".

The large age gap brought to mind the pederastic (not necessarily paedophilic) relationships of Greece BCE - Socrates apparently railed against older men consumating such relationships.

Morcom's death appears to have been a pivotal moment in Turings formative years - my Freudian speculation was that Turings attraction to younger men, teenagers, could have been an attempt to chase the relationship of his youth that ended so abruptly; much as middle-age men are want to chase younger women as an attempt to recapture their youth.

It also seems right that having left his parents and arrived in bording school only to have his only real friend taken from him by death could well have spurred Turing on into his studies whilst social success may have led him to fritter away his gifts, ignore his studies and follow more worldy pursuits.

"Most sexual relationships, feel free to prove me wrong, don't have a 20+ year age gap."

There's no need to prove wrong a statement based on speculation.

Gay men, go ahead and prove me wrong, are no more likely to have relationships with wide age disparities than homosexual men.

Besides: what of it? Most people don't have an IQ over 130 either. Most people don't drive Jaguars. Most people don't have a second home overseas. What's that a measure of? NORMALCY?

I agree that sometimes people who are hurt in life-at-large turn to inward pursuits in order to avoid further pain. It's certainly true that a lot of professional scientists have little or no use for 'social success', and see most of us as quite foolish, unreasoning creatures. But I don't think of their success as an excuse to run around torturing young men ... or driving older, very successful men to suicide after decades of loyal and very valuable service.

Statements based on speculation are not automatically wrong and so if you wish to _show_ they are wrong then you need to prove it. Your first sentence is specious at best and not really that as even a priori it strikes me as poor logic.

Did you mean no more likely [...] than heterosexual men?

The best stats I can get are from "The Demographics of Same-Sex 'Marriages' in Norway and Sweden" however they don't relate particularly to the Midlands of England in the 1950s. They show that indeed about 34% of homosexual male registered relationships in their study have a 10+year age gap (vs. 9% for heterosexual marriage) but account for this by the greater age of those entering registered homosexual relationships.

So yes "older men with younger" is apparently a more common homosexual pattern [in modern Sweden amongst officially recognised partnerships] but that's not really relevant as we're not considering a population but a specific case - stats don't show anything certain about individual members of a population. So this apparent Ephebophilia may have been a more specific fixation (which was my speculation) - Turing's crush died tragically at 18, the lad he was arrested for having a tryst with was 19.

Like I said, it's speculation. There doesn't appear to be anything ruling it out.

Two side points:

"Normalcy", yes statistics indicate "normalcy", the age gap is unusual. Deviations from normalcy often have interesting phenomena behind them - I had a BBQ this evening, that's unusual, the reason why we chose to sit outside and eat, cooking over charcoal, indicates something about my character.

I don't understand your reference to "torturing young men" what are you getting at there?

Have you considered that one of the reasons why gay men do not particulary care about 'age gap' or anything like that is because they are not going to have kids so do not have to take turns in nurturing one or more infants from birth until they're 18 or so ?

And as for whether or not it is normal between heterosexual people to have an age gap that large, I know personally of a couple that differed 30 years in age, the irony is that she was the younger one but died in her early 50's of a heart attack (and her widower is still alive today at 90+).

Normalcy is whatever people do, you can not compare heterosexuals and homosexuals as a group and expect to come up with the same answers with respect to things like this because they are two fundamentally different lifestyles.

This has effect on all those things you seem to want to compare them to in order to prove them to be abnormal, which seems to be your main point of interest here.

My main points of enquiry were: 1) was Turing openly homosexual back in the days of Bletchley Park - those homosexuals around now that new him say he was but this seems quite bizarre when you consider that his fiancee who he also worked closely with did not know, she may (as I suspect) have realised that he had those tendencies before he said, but that's not being openly homosexual. I think he was probably bisexual but more probably fixated on a specific person. Which brings us to 2) was his relationship as a 40 yo with a 19 yo typical of his relationships and is that an indicator of my hypothesis that he was fixated.

To a lesser extent I'd also be curious to know if (3) had he been having an affair with a girl 20 years his junior in that time period (1950s) then how would society have treated him?

Age difference can and has been compared across all types of sexual relationship - your comment is like saying fitness can't be compared between vegetarians and omnivores as their fitness is bound to be different, I disagree. Youths are more impressionable and easier to "corrupt" than older people with more self-knowledge and experience.

A large proportion of heterosexual relationships don't result in children and homosexuals are now able to adopt so nurturing ability is not a clear difference that would allow age-gaps in one sector of society and not in another.

One of the points of social pressure to long term relationships, particularly in the 1950s and before, would be reducing the spread of disease. Syphilis killed something like 1 in 6 children in the early 1900s. Thus, sexual relationships outside of marriage were strongly discouraged in the middle classes, it was not primarily a question of children - my point is that I don't think Turing would have faired much better if he were a heterosexual ephebophile.

Normalcy here is only relevant as an indicator, most of us are abnormal in some way, if I wished to prove Turing abnormal then I'd answer the question "how many were awarded an OBE in the war for doing maths?".


Your 34% statistic is interesting, although it lacks a comparison to heterosex. However: so what? Is there some reason a subculture should adhere to majoritarian statistics? Age differences do not equate with exploitation.My father was 10+ years older than my mother.

Interesting topic but this isn't the place.

My initial premise was that Turing's 21 year seniority over his sexual partner was unusual and may indicate an underlying psychological condition, possibly ephebophilia or maybe - as I speculated - a fixation on a particular person. The statistics available don't show this to be true but they do show that large age gaps are relatively uncommon even in [modern] homosexual relationships. This gives a little weight to my speculation which was dismissed out of hand.

This may not be the place, but it was not I who raised the subject.

Aside: Yes I believe sex outside marriage is wrong (not the subject here) yet no-one calls me an adultery basher, slut basher or an ephebophile basher; curious.

I really have a hard time trying to understand how you can even begin to reach such a conclusion.

Turing was already well underway to become a very special person indeed long before that happened, his mathematical and scientific skills were beyond dispute at a very young age.

A quote from the wikipedia article on Alan Turing:

"Despite this, Turing continued to show remarkable ability in the studies he loved, solving advanced problems in 1927 without having even studied elementary calculus. In 1928, aged 16, Turing encountered Albert Einstein's work; not only did he grasp it, but he extrapolated Einstein's questioning of Newton's laws of motion from a text in which this was never made explicit"

It's quite common, particularly long after the fact, for teachers to say things like "of course we knew he was special". The Turing Scrapbook, which is at least partially biased in favour of Turing as a demi-god(!), makes no claims as to Turing being notably gifted as a child; indeed mentioning he was nearly stopped from doing his exams.

He was certainly a gifted child but his exceptional mathematical abilities only appear to have really taken root during his University career.

just so we're clear here, "teenaged boys" is (was?), in reality, men of legal age. he was convicted of a crime because he admitted to being a homosexual, stripped of his security clearance, and chemically castrated. he was not a pedophile, as the parent seems to be implying.

Apropos of nothing the age of consent in the UK for homosexuals was 21 until 1994 I think - your first clause is a little weird perhaps you mean "men of majority, adults".

Turing chose chemical castration in preference to prison (I think the term would have been 2 years). Given his knowledge of biology and chemistry and that people on-line have told me he was open about his homosexual preference (which is doubtful given his fiancée didn't know until after they were engaged despite working with him and knowing him intimately outside of work), anyway given those two points why didn't he choose prison?

He was convicted of a crime because he admitted to performing acts which were illegal - (at least after and probably before 1954 IIRC) it was also illegal to bugger anyone (or animal!) and an admission of that would have presumably led him to the same sentence (according to the statute), loss of clearance and job the only difference being he wouldn't of been offered hormone therapy ("organo-therapy")as an alternative.

Unrelated but I also only just found out that he is Alan M Turing OBE FRS having been honoured by the Queen for his war efforts and made a Fellow for his maths accomplishments. The recent news made me think he'd been blanked.

How come I can'd downvote this any further?

I was bullied at school, it lead to me achieving better grades.

Is it such an unreasonable consideration that being rejected by society (even the society of Kings that would have been more than open to homosexuals) would lead one to focus attention on more ethereal pursuits?

Not at all unreasonable, but your comment sounded like "LOL PEDO FAG GOT WHAT HE HAD COMIN'". I wasn't alone with that interpretation.

Congratulations to jgrahamc on making this happen. This apology was long overdue and would not have happened without your effort.

Thanks. It's quite a surprise to actually have this happen.

And it was more of a surprise when my mobile phone rang and a Scottish man said "Hello John. It's Gordon Brown."

That's awesome. In the USA, you get "Please hold for the President of the United States".

Actually it went like this: the phone rang and a woman called Kirsty who I'd had previously spoken to said "Gordon would like to talk to you" and then Gordon was on the line...

Completely awesome. Good work! I signed the petition (of course) and encouraged others to do so, but I have to admit that I am delighted that it actually happened.

It's the first time I signed a petition on number10.gov.uk. I wasn't sure if anything would come of it, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that it worked.

"In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ - in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence - and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison - was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later."

Yes, and he killed himself by eating a cyanide-laced apple. This poetic method of suicide allowed him, as one final gesture, to give his mother the comfort of thinking her son's death was accidental. His mother maintained that her little Alan was always tinkering in the lab, and it was most likely an accident that his apple became contaminated with the cyanide that killed him.

It's also possible that he was assassinated. We'll probably never know for sure.

"Alan Turing, the man who knew too much", by David Leavitt.

The speculation goes that if Turing was a homosexual he was a security risk. I'm not sure what to make of that though, after all he was no longer allowed to work with the machines which were advancing very rapidly indeed.

Similar rumours keep cropping up about David Kelly.

The problem is that with such a lack of transparency even if these are nonsense there is no way to debunk them, that alone gives them a semblance of credence. As you said, we'll never know.

If Turing had been heterosexual and had gone out to the cinema to pick someone up and then invited them back to his house for sex .. that too would have been seen as risky behaviour likely to lead to being snared in a honey trap, no?

Presumably the situation of his arrest wasn't the first time he had acted in this way.

The circumstances are quite different.

From what I know about the case, and I've only read a book or two on it and quite long ago, the friend that Turing took home later broke in to his house or something to that effect. Turing reported to the police and in the process of the investigation the whole thing spilled out.

So, even if it wasn't the first time he acted that way it doesn't really matter because there is 0 proof that Turing was 'blackmailable' because of his sexuality.

The whole situation appears to have been an attempted blackmail, Turing meets a teenager at the cinema in the week and invites him back to his for sex, they meet that weekend (with another person IIRC) and have sexual relations and the youth takes some of Turings possessions (money can be a possession, Secret government docs can be too(!), something was taken) presumably under the belief that Turing wouldn't report it due to their relationship - approximating blackmail at least. Turing reports the larceny (theft of sorts) to the Police, they ask him what the youth was doing there and Turing told them. Resulting in Turing and the youth both being arrested.

I'd warrant there is no record anywhere to show this wasn't an attempt at blackmail as part of espionage activities - but you're right he turned out not to be blackmail-able in this instance as he went to the police. But one does not know whether he was in a trap and realised it or not in a trap at all.

The MI6 file on this would make an interesting read I'm sure.

The official history is somewhere in between. But this doesn't make the apology less welcome. No matter why he died, the wrong thing is the way he was treated when alive. And, no doubt about that, he was treated badly.

That's the most heartfelt thing I've read from Gordon Brown (or his aides) .. fantastic. I'm very pleased that the apology was made.

Actually, it could have been a little less "I'm proud to say" and "I'm pleased to have the chance"...

When you(r country) messed up and it's your duty to apologize, don't be proud and pleased. Simply be sorry.

Given that neither Gordon Brown nor any members of the current government are culpable in the brutal treatment of Alan Turing a lifetime ago, they are not capable of making a sincere apology for that treatment. The only thing they are capable of is in making a self-congratulatory statement that amounts to "Look how much better we are today than our forefathers!". That is what this is, and that is all they can give us. Anything else would be dishonest.

They could formally pardon him as well.

I'm not sure there is any history of the UK government issuing posthumous pardons.

There are actually plenty, such as a lot of people that were executed during World War I for 'cowardice', there are others dealing with people wrongly accused of crimes.


  Today the monarch may only grant a pardon on the advice 
  of the Justice Secretary (previously the Home Secretary)
  or the First Minister of Scotland (or the Defence 
  Secretary in military justice cases), and the policy of
  the Ministry of Justice and Scottish Executive is only to 
  grant pardons to those who are "morally" innocent of the 
  offence (as opposed to those who may have been wrongly 
  convicted by misapplication of the law)

That grated on me as well. You can be honored to be the one to finally acknowledge the service of Alan Turing. You cannot be pleased to apologize for your government's having killed him.

I think the words 'having killed him' are a little strong here, I would not go further than to say 'driven him to suicide'.

I know the end effect is the same but it is not as though some government official put a bullet through his head.

What they were doing was exceedingly cruel and misguided though.

I think the point is that he's proud to be the one that's leading Britain in the right direction. Maybe he's also pleased that now history books about Alan Turing will have a blurb about the apology with this name attached to it.

While the UK shouldn't be proud of the way homosexuals were treated in the past, but I think it's perfectly acceptable to be proud that they are treated (relatively) well now.

That's what I thought. If the government is apologising, then they are essentially saying they are shouldering some of the responsibility for the mistakes of previous governments. If that's the case, they shouldn't be pleased or proud, but regretful and reflective.

I like Turing and it was appalling what they did to him. But I don't see why people care about an apology to a dead guy? It won't make him any less dead.

There is lots of other more important stuff we need to deal with.

Apologies are a way to acknowledge that mistakes were made in the past as well as that there's an intention not to make them again. As such they help us prevent future mistakes.

I can see that on the scale on individuals? But governments? They make a habit of going against what the previous incumbents did or said, just so they look like they are doing something different.

As such I don't see how this apology will make one jot of difference to the UK governments future actions (it already has openly gay MPs, I can't see them backing legislation that criminalizes their sexual preference).

There is a legal fiction that a government is not merely the vector-sum of actions made by its functionaries, but that it has a corporate identity that decides and acts and persists over time. This is fiction, of course, but it's a useful fiction--a model, if you prefer--and it has some connection with the way humans as social animals identify with their tribes.

So the United Kingdom (represented by its Home Office and judiciary in the 1950s), as a thing with a corporate identity, did wrong to Alan Turing, and it is appropriate for the United Kingom (represented by its Prime Minister) to apologize for its misdeeds.

It's more of a way for a society to formally make reparations for past bad (group) actions. Even if the person is dead, there is an implicit promise to never let this happen again.

It's about two things: First of all a point of principle, a sense of justice for Turing and all those like him, wrongfully branded criminals for simply following their nature.

Even today there are plenty of cases of overt violence against homosexuals and it certainly won't hurt to remind potential perpetrators on the current stance of the government in these matters.

Second, to put the spotlight on all kinds of discrimination happening today, not just because of sexuality.

Maybe it will make some people think about what the long term consequences of these stupid policies can be.

You can't bring the dead to life, that's for sure. But at least we can make the living think a little bit about the consequences of their actions.

The country that I live in (nl) does all kinds of unspeakable things to foreigners (jail them, make them take tests to prove their going to be good dutch people and so on), in short discriminates against them left, right and center.

For gays, lesbians and 'others' (no, I'm not forgetting you this time), the battle here (nl) is mostly won, there are plenty of others that still need doing. (see http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/05/14/netherlands-discrimina...)

Alan Turing being British and gay instead of Moroccan, Turkish or from some other 'scary' country with a 'scary' religion seems to be unrelated, but these cases are all about unjust laws singling out groups that have done absolutely nothing wrong.

I'm sure that for other groups this has absolutely no weight, but with every apology by some government official for past wrongdoings we get one step closer to governments that can be held accountable in the present.

50 years is way too long, but it is better than nothing.

So, I agree there is lots of more important stuff that we need to deal with. But it's 'cost free' because it does not actually go at the expense of one of those things, and it may help in the future to avoid stupid 'mistakes' like these so that at that time there will be less important stuff that needs dealing with.

" ... wrongfully branded criminals for simply following their nature." The argument that an action is simply a persons "nature" is impotent. Do you hold forth that same argument when such pederasty, due to age restrictions, is classed as child abuse?

People probably levelled the same argument against Socrate's [reported by Plato and Xenophon] denouncement of the buggery of juveniles by older men.

I think the discriminating factor here is 'consent', which was implied in the example of Turing and notably absent in cases involving children.

The 'teenage boy' (which implies anybody between the age of 10 and 19 inclusive) was in fact 19, Turing himself was if I get it all right 42 at the time.

Teenage = 13-19 (ends with -teen).

> (which implies anybody between the age of 10 and 19 inclusive)

So ? That's what I wrote wasn't it ? I realize 19 is 'a teen' but it is at the end of the spectrum. Saying just 'teenage' makes it ambiguous and is suggestive of someone much younger than nineteen, you tend to guess that must be in the middle of the range, whereas in fact it was the last entry in the range.

I'm being pedantic, yes, but it's 13 to 19 inclusive. Not 10 to 19.

This is a language issue then, here in NL when you are '10' you are officially a 'tiener', even if you are a young one.

It used to be 13 to 20 here, but that was a long time ago.

Apologies, I just took the dutch word 'tiener' to mean 'teenager' in English. My bad.

So that raises the median age by a year and a half.

You say that as though an apology is preventing "us" from doing "more important stuff". Like the apology would somehow consume resources or be a distraction.

If you don't like it, feel free to not read the article.

It is a headline in papers and online news sites. It is not only my attention that it is consuming. And attention is valuable right? There is only a finite amount of it to go around for good causes etc.

If everyone was doing their best to help the living, I would have no issue with it.

I've just come away from watching series one of The Thick of It so I'm nothing but cynical about this. I do hope my doubts are wrongly placed.

Reading the PM's statement, is anyone else from the US struck by the feeling that this kind of statement could never be made by the US govt in 2009?

"I will never apologize for the United States of America ? I don't care what the facts are."

- http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/George_H._W._Bush

- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran_Air_Flight_655

Draw your own conclusions.

Rare, but it happens ..

"President Bush apologized Thursday for the humiliation suffered by Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. soldiers.."

"President Clinton has apologized to the elderly black survivors of a government-run study of untreated syphilis."

"The significance of a presidential apology was recognized recently when the President apologized to those harmed by Cold War radiation experiments."

"In 1990, the U.S. president apologized to and compensated Japanese-Americans for their internment during the war."

I didn't necessarily agree with the petition (that is, don't necessarily see the point of posthumous apologies) but you did a fantastic job, jgrahamc. Congratulations on making this happen.

Thank you for that. Recognition from people who don't actually agree with me is always very welcome.

So much for a posthumous knighthood I guess...

That's a real pity, it would have been nice to see this go one step further up the ladder. But it is quite nice to see something this positive come from jgrahamc's efforts.

I agree. This statement is very good-- a sincere apology-- and I like that it includes the details of Turing's conviction and sentence.

I want to see a knighthood though. By any standard, Turing deserves one.

And a full pardon as well, note that the statement by Brown is just an apology, not a pardon, so Turing remains a convicted criminal as far as the law is concerned.

Agreed, he will likely have to be pardoned before he would ever be Knighted. (I'm unsure, does the Queen only pardon soldiers' crimes?)

interesting reading on that subject here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pardon#United_Kingdom

Thanks, I tried searching for something on it, but I believe I was idiot-googling as I was in a rush.

Really the government needs to establish a procedure for posthumous pardons, essentially a 'posthumously pardoned under present laws'.

A good 10 min. documentary excerpt on 'The Death of Alan Turing' http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7_WzNzHwJY

"I am rather afraid that the following syllogism may be used by some in the future

Turing believes that machines think Turing lies with men Therefore machines do not think"

I didn't know much about his life until I read "A madman dreams of Turing machines," which is a great book about Turing and Godel. Tortured souls, both of them.

Congratulations to all those who were behind this petition. As an Irish man (educated in the UK) I now have slightly more respect for Gordon Brown.

A spine-tingling read.

It's about time.

Thank you very much. Too long for me to read it now but I've read the first chapter and it is quite a find.

How is this any more appropriate for Hacker News than President Obama's speech to schoolchildren (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=810399)? It seems to me that both are a national leader saying basically common things.

The Obama/school thing lacks either of the two major themes of this site (in my eyes anyway): computing and entrepreneurship.

The Turing story has Alan Turing, one of the forefathers of modern computing, and probably an idol, of sorts, to many of the readers here.

So on those grounds, yeah, I could see how the latter is much more appropriate for this site.

Whenever a politician apologizes to his voters for the actions of individuals long dead towards other individuals long dead, I somehow fail to be impressed.

I suppose it is sort of interesting in a National Geographic, watch the natives with their bizarre religious customs, type of way.

Agreed. I always have the same reaction.

Now if the perpetrators apologized I would be more impressed. But even if those folks did, it still wouldn't bring him back. If the laws in Britain today are already such that they couldn't do that sort of thing again legally, then, this is even more of an irrelevant event. Just one particular unfortunate situation that happened to one particular person a long time ago.

Of course, I hear there was this one guy who got literally nailed to a cross for just talking to people, 2000 years ago, and people are still talking about that today. That really blows me away.

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