Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Some stories about Alan Turing

So, here are a few Turing stories of my own. The first from Robin Gandy, who supervised by DPhil, and who, in turn, was Turing's PhD student. Robin had a wealth of stories about Turing, many of which made their way into Andrew Hodges' book – Hodges was a postgrad in Oxford with Penrose around the beginning of the 80s. Perhaps most poignant [quoting from Mike Yates' obituary of Robin]  was when asked about Turing's motives if he really did commit suicide, Gandy would become quite heated: “Some things are too deep and private and should not be pried into.” Sara Turing, Alan's mother, certainly always maintained that his death was an accident.

Her biography of Alan was republished in the centenary year by Cambridge University Press, and that also has only remembered stories of his youth and adulthood. The most striking thing for me was the postscript written by his brother John, on their upbringing, which was not untypical for the English upper middle classes in the early years of the century. Two quotes
  • When Alan was two “rightly or wrongly, [my father] decided that he and my mother should return alone to India, leaving both children with foster parents in England” … “it was certainly a shock for me, even at the age of five” but “it was accepted procedure” (and he goes on to compare it with Kipling's horrendous experience, noting that at least they “escaped” that).
  • The real bombshell, though, is schooling. John says, without an ounce of irony or indeed anger “I take credit for persuading my parents to send [Alan] to Sherborne instead of Marlborough, which all but crushed me and would certainly have crushed him”.
A final anecdote. In our previous house, a near neighbour was a retired canon from Canterbury Cathedral, Donald Eperson, who wrote puzzles for the Mathematical Gazette, and who had been a schoolteacher before being ordained. Not any teacher, though, he's taught Alan at Sherborne, and indeed is mentioned in the Hodges biography. He remembered Alan, and I lent him the book – unfortunately, references to his naiveté rather upset him, and I was sorry for unsettling him. 

It's certainly a great thing that Turing has become almost a household name, and that his memory has been rescued for generations to come as one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century. It's also a great thing that he was pardoned for his conviction for being gay … but surely something that should apply to everyone who was treated so shamefully?


Gandy obituary

Sara Turing bio of Alan

Memoir of Donald Eperson (look for "Music and Mathematics")

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