Thursday, August 20, 2009

Turing the world of science and justice

The Independent ran a story on Tuesday (Aug 18) about a petition being signed by many in Britain, to demand an apology from the British government for its treatment of the late Alan Turing. Richard Dawkins has weighed in as well. Turing was famous for being one of the leaders in developing the regular system by which the British (and the US) were able to read much of the Axis military codes during WWII, by developing mechanical computing means of simulating input conditions for their Enigma machine.

Turing also was a founder of the idea and logic of programmable computers. A Turing machine is a general purpose theoretical concept of how to solve problems that can be very extensive. Many of its principles have been put into practice.

Relative to this blog is that Turing's idea of 'reaction-diffusion' systems was a mathematical model for repetitive patterning such as is widespread in life (hair, leaves, fingers, vertebrae, etc. etc.). Turing showed how complex patterns can be produced by simple interactive processes. You don't need a separate gene for each hair, and tinkering with the process can easily lead to differently patterned hair. We now know from extensive research by many, many of us that signaling systems work this way, and this is how organisms of all kinds are assembled (a major theme in our book, The Mermaid's Tale, that we referred to as 'complexity made simply').

Turing's ideas, modified for practical molecular developmental genetics, are more widespread than is his 1952 paper itself, and most users of the logic of the idea are probably unaware of the paper. But it was a factor in late 20th-century developmental biologists' thinking, expressed in terms like 'morphogens', morphogenetic fields, and the like.

We should be careful about lionizing anyone from the past. In each area in which Turing made major contributions, he had major antecedents. In the late 19th century William Bateson used then-popular field theory and concepts of wave interference patterns to liken such patterns to similar developmental processes in embryos that are responsible for repetitive traits.

In computer science there were Babbage, Holerith, and others, not to mention the Jacquard loom, and at Bletchley Park the Collosus, a punch-tape vacuum-tube based programmable device the British postal service had been using, modified as a German code-breaker.

And Turing was by no means the only major figure to work on Enigma. In fact the code had first been broken well before the war by Polish cryptographers who not only gave their knowledge to the French and British, but who had also invented the machine called the 'bombe' that was a kind of mechanical simulator referred to earlier. And Gordon Welchman who introduced a particular modification to the bombe, called the 'diagonal board', that enabled decoding-simulation of the more complex Enigma the Germans began using later in the way. (We know some of this history since we visited Bletchley Park earlier this summer--when we took the pictures in this post--and subsequently read about it).

The point is simply to place things in proper context. None of us work entirely without history. Even Darwin needs such tempered recognition. This is relevant to the petition mentioned by The Independent. It refers to the fact that Turing, besides being an odd duck in many ways, was homosexual. Today of course that would be no big deal. But that's today. At the time, even in the England he helped save from the Nazis, being gay meant being in the slammer for a number of years (it was like that here in the good ol' enlightened USA, too).

By fluke, Turing was discovered to be gay by the powers-that-be (see the story for details), and he volunteered to undergo hormone 'therapy' rather than jail for his punishment. It had negative effects on him, and for that and who knows what other reasons, Turing bit the poisoned apple -- literally -- and died at age 41.

The petition is for an:
apology from the Prime Minister Gordon Brown, recognising the "consequences of prejudice that ended his career". More than 700 people have signed a petition started by the leading computer scientist John Graham-Cumming on the Downing Street website, including gay rights campaigners, politicians and scientists."
We wholly sympathize and would certainly sign this petition if we were in the UK. However, it strikes us that that's not the right thing to do. Turing actually broke a law that he knew of and was on the books at the time. He was not the only victim of that law, and the majority of his contemporaries in Britain at the time would have considered it a just law, and hence he not a 'victim.'

Standards have changed, and Turing is certainly owed an expression of regret that times were then as judgmental as they were--and we should try to reduce such things today. But one shouldn't have to be a famous genius to warrant retrospective empathy. To apologize to Turing is selectively saying that the way he was treated was regrettable because he helped win the war and invented modern computing theory.

In a way that demeans the apology. We owe expression of regrets about our human failings firstly to ourselves, so we won't repeat them, and then to everyone who fell victim, chimney-sweep and code-breaker alike. We should be touring the entire world, not just Turing's world of science, in seeking out injustice.


R Weiss said...

You say that it is not right to sign the petition because the law against homosexuality was "on the books" in the UK at the time, implying that the law was in alignment with British social and moral standards current at the time (though, probably as disagreed with by gays then as now).

Yet, we have plenty of examples of past laws "on the books" which we can more than happily repudiate retrospectively -- no matter what people at the time thought -- Slavery being perhaps the best example.

Be bold -- sign the petition!

Ken Weiss said...

No, we didn't say it wasn't right to sign it, and we did say that if we were in Britain we would do that.

Our point was that it isn't right to feel that he should be apologized to on the grounds that he did a lot for his country (which he definitely did!).

We mainly wanted to point out how, in our society we tend to give heroes recognition that sometimes they did not differentially deserve. In this case, every gay Brit who was punished for that 'disease' (as many then thought it was) is equally deserving of our apology.

Also, if we think we only erred in Turing's case (because he was otherwise a good guy), we may not learn the lesson about intolerance.

But again we were intending nothing against Turing!

R Weiss said...

Finally, "justice" for Turin: