There’s a campaign under way in Britain to press the government to issue an apology in the case of Alan Turing. Turing is considered the father of the modern computer and contributed to the defeat of Germany during World War Two by cracking secret Nazi codes. Turing committed suicide in 1954 after being prosecuted for being homosexual. Anchor Lisa Mullins finds out more about the campaign from Richard Gill, a professor of mathematical statistics at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.
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LISA MULLINS: Homosexuality was illegal in England until 1967 and Alan Turing was a victim of that law. Turing was a celebrated mathematician. He contributed to the defeat of Germany in World War II by cracking secret Nazi codes. But Alan Turing was also gay and that caused him trouble. The 1996 TV movie, “Breaking the Code,” dramatized Touring’s life. Here Touring, played by Derek Jacobi, gets some advice from his boss played by Richard Johnson.
RICHARD JOHNSON: I do you think you might be a little more discreet. Tongues are beginning to work.
DEREK JACOBI: Am I in for the lesson in morals?
JOHNSON: And common sense. I mean I don’t give a dam whether you choose to g to bed with crows boys or with Cocker Spaniels but it would be wiser to keep your private life to yourself.
JACOBI: Is this an official reprimand?
JOHNSON: Friendly advice. Nothing more.
MULLINS: Once Alan Touring’s secret was out he was forced to undergo hormonal treatments which did him harm. Touring’s life unraveled and he killed himself in 1954. He was 41. Now there’s a campaign afoot to get the British government to apologize for the way it treated Touring. Richard Gill is one of hundreds of people who’ve signed a petition. He’s a professor of mathematical statistics at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and he is an admirer of Touring.
RICHARD GILL: Alan Touring is one of the giants of the 20th century. I think, as far as I know, a perfectly decent man. He did such important work. He did so much important work for Britain and the US for that matter. And then his life to come to an end in such a dismal way is really, really sad and I think it would be good to make the symbol that top authorities apologize for what went wrong.
MULLINS: What is your own personal connection to Alan Touring?
GILL: Well I have some sort of small, old, personal connections. For instance, my mother actually worked at Bletchly Park during the war where they were breaking the codes, applying the algorithms which Touring had figured it out in order to break the secret codes which were being used to target the U-boats – to sink British and American shipping. So my mother was one of many young ladies who just sat there turning wheels on machines for doing long calculations, long multiplications and additions and so on. And it’s very exciting because they knew they had broken the codes from time to time. That’s one little connection.
MULLINS: As you say he was a brilliant mathematician. What did it take in that time to break the Nazi code?
GILL: It’s like solving a puzzle – like solving a Sudoko puzzle. You know you have to systematically try this and this and this. If you very systematically do the right steps in the right order. It’s like getting out of a maze. You know if you keep your right hand on the wall you will get out. So in that sense he didn’t invent the computer for solving that, he invented a method, an algorithm we would say.
MULLINS: Alan Touring was called the father of computer science. Can you tell us why?
GILL: Well he talked very deeply about what a computer could do so I would just call him like the father of theoretical computer science or a father of theoretical computer science and all these ideas of the theory of codes a cryptography – making secret codes. That’s a whole lot of development in mathematics and in computer science which are all around this circle of ideas and a whole lot of modern technology like whether or not your internet banking is safe and things like that sort of depends on these ideas – this kind of mathematics – and it’s a basis of a lot of important computer science and computer applications.
MULLINS: Hmm interesting. Richard Gill, professor of mathematical statistics at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Thank you very much.
GILL: It was a great pleasure.
MULLINS: Several hundred people have signed a petition to get the British government to issue a formal apology for its treatment of Alan Touring.
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