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Society and Culture

EXCLUSIVE: Alan Turing Honored at the PROSE Awards

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This afternoon, publisher Elsevier Science won the R.R. Hawkins Award at the American Association of Publishers’ PROSE Awards, winning the top prize in the professional and scholarly publishing industry. Elsevier was honored for its work publishing the recent book, Alan Turing: His Work and Impact.

Folks, how many of you even know who Alan Turing is? Probably not a lot of you, unless you were serious math and science nerds during college.

So! I’ll catch you up. Born in 1912, Turing grew up in London and was one of those kids who’s just crazy smart. The kind of smart that makes you never want to read again, because OMG you could never measure up. He was such a talented math student that he skipped elementary calculus, and went straight to coming up with Einstein’s same ideas on his own by age 16.

Did you ever see Good Will Hunting? Alan Turing is basically Matt Damon. Yes. That guy.

But, since Turing didn’t endure childhood abuse and neglect like Will Hunting, he didn’t go on to become an under-achiever with anger problems. Instead, he turned out fabulously — he went on to become one of the most important mathematicians in history.

He came up with the idea to feed machines algorithms. He broke the German Enigma codes in World War II. He invented the CAPTCHA test. So, basically — that scene in The Social Network where the Facebook algorithm finds itself on the window of Zuck’s dorm room? That would be thanks to Turing. The Allied Powers defeating Hitler’s Nazi Germany in World War II? You can thank Turing for that, too. The computer you’re reading this post on right now? Also courtesy of Turing.

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Considering none of us can remember how to survive without computers and the Internet, Alan Turing pretty much made our whole lives. So, it’s pretty weird that a guy this important isn’t actually way more famous than he is, right?

Right. But he’s not. Because he was gay.

Back when Turing was alive, homosexuality was a criminal offense in England. So, in 1952, when his home was burgled by an acquaintance of his lover, Turing found himself in some deep shit. During the investigation, he admitted to having a romantic and sexual relationship with his lover, and wound up being charged with a crime himself. Crap like this is why queer folks don’t trust the cops, you guys.

Anyway! Turing wound up being convicted of gross indecency, and in lieu of prison time, he was sentenced to chemical castration. For one year, Turing received injections of oestrogen, a synthetic female hormone. As a result, he became impotent and developed gynaecomastia — a fancy doctor word that means he started growing breasts. Not surprisingly, Turing lost his security access and his job.

Also unsurprisingly, Turing was not a happy guy during this whole ordeal. He was so unhappy, in fact, that he committed suicide just two years later. In 1954, Turing was found dead in his apartment, a half-eaten apple lying beside him. It’s suspected that he laced the apple with cyanide in a dark reenactment of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He was only 41.

In the years since his death, Turing’s legacy has been complicated. While his work lives on forever — providing the basis of all modern-day computer science — his name has been shrouded in shame-induced obscurity. His fame was revived in the early 2000s, when England batted around the idea of granting him a posthumous pardon for his “crimes,” something that didn’t officially happen until 2013.

So, when Elsevier published this book, celebrating Turing’s work and solidifying his place in history, it was a pretty big deal. They sent a message to the world that Alan Turing won’t be forgotten, despite his sexuality.

Before now, Turing was something of a tragic figure. He was a ridiculously great thinker, an indispensable historical figure, a scientific visionary with one tragic flaw. He liked other men. And in this heteronormative, patriarchal, Puritanical, fucked up world, that was reason enough to banish him from the history books. To banish him from life, really. His final years on this planet were tortured ones, and his gross mistreatment at the hands of the law ultimately led to his suicide.

Turing wasn’t alone. Countless queers have been persecuted over the course of history, and we continue to face social and legal adversity today. In the United States, homosexuality was a criminal offense until 2003. That’s insane.

So, here’s the bottom line. It’s awesome that Elsevier published this book, and it’s super fabulous that the company was honored for it. You heard it here first.

But Turing’s not the only gay man who suffered at the hands of the law. He’s not the only queer person whose legacy was forced into obscurity. And he’s not the only queer whose life was cut tragically short.

So, let’s remember Alan Turing. But let’s not forget about the rest of our community—especially those of us who aren’t white, male, able-bodied, middle-class, and cisgender. We’re suffering too.

Featured image courtesy of [Tim Ellis via Flickr]

Hannah R. Winsten
Hannah R. Winsten is a freelance copywriter, marketing consultant, and blogger living in New York’s sixth borough. She hates tweeting but does it anyway. She aspires to be the next Rachel Maddow. Contact Hannah at staff@LawStreetMedia.com.

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