by iampunha | 6/23/2008 08:00:00 AM
In the 1940s in Germany, there were no secrets.

Oh, the Nazis thought they had secrets. They thought their code was unbreakable. It was like a belief system with them, such that evidence to the contrary simply didn't matter.

Until 1974, knowledge of this code and how it was broken (over and over and over again) was secret. It did not officially exist.

Twenty years before, one of the men most responsible for breaking that code had killed himself, thus making him unavailable for press conferences, a book, lecturing on the subject, etc.

He had not done this out of any sense that what he had done was wrong.

In fact, while we know how he died, historians and scholars don't agree on why he did it or even that he killed himself. And not everyone is convinced that he was of sound mind (certainly not of sound body) when he ended his life.

But there's no doubt that on June 23, 1912, Alan Turing, one of the most accomplished scientists of the Ultra effort, was born.



For James Hansen, who 20 years ago today testified that global warming was as good as here, and who still faces opposition by people being paid to oppose him for corporate benefit rather than actual scientific doubt.

Few things in life are certain, but this much is: if anyone in the British government knew Turing was gay while he was at work at Bletchley Park, they kept it as secret as he did. What is far more likely is that the government didn't know, as Turing was prosecuted for homosexuality in England not in 1946, once there was no need for him, but in 1952.

I could take the rest of this entry and rail against the idiocy that jailed Oscar Wilde in 1895, but this is about more than that. Because all you can say about Oscar Wilde, if you're being critical (not in a literary sense but more a mean one), is that he wrote.

About Turing, you can say that he helped save millions of lives.

That the results of Turing's work didn't matter to the government, some members of which knew of what he'd done for the world in World War II, speaks more simply about "Well, those are the rules" than any amount of railing or shouting I could do. Indeed, to lambaste the cretinous piles of slime for what they did would be to honor them with words, when mere contemptible thoughts are by far more fitting filth of their social standing.

Alan Turing was convicted of sodomy. For this, he had two options: jail or hormone therapy. He choose the therapy, which involved shooting up with estrogen daily.

He was dead two years later, whether by his own hand or someone else's, whether he thought he was Snow White or he knew he would never be respected, despite his work on Ultra. Dead because he was gay, and screw what scores upon scores of lives he'd helped save, what problems he'd solved in code designed to be unbreakable by the world's finest non-German scientists.

In the documentary I cited in my D-Day diary, very few of the scientists involved are mentioned in more than passing. The operation was massive, and many of Britain's best and brightest collectively buckled down and broke the code.

Alan Turing is mentioned by name several times, and people even talk about his mannerisms.

And they talk about his work.

They talk about this:

From then on, with the help of some further captures, the U-boat communications were effectively mastered. Alan Turing continued to head the cryptanalysis of all German Naval signals in Hut Eight.

The naval Enigma was more complicated than those of the other German services, using a stock of eight rather than five rotors. For the Bombe to work in a practical time it was necessary to find ways of cutting down the number of possibilities. Alan Turing developed 'Banburismus,' a statistical and logical technique of great elegance, to find the identity of the rotors of the enciphering Enigma before using the Bombe. Turing made major developments in Bayesian statistical theory for this work, with his assistant (I. J.) Jack Good.


And this:

In fact, the Enigma had to be broken afresh over and over again. The hardware in the picture is not the whole story, and capturing it did not allow Enigma messages to be read. The German use of the Enigma depended on systems for setting the keys for each message transmitted, and it was these key-systems that had to be broken. There were many such systems, often changing, and the hardware was changed as well from time to time. The brilliant pre-war work by Polish mathematicians enabled them to read Enigma messages on the simplest key-systems. The information they gave to Britain and France in 1939 may have been crucial, but it was not sufficient for the continuation and extension of Enigma breaking over the next six years. New ideas were essential.

In 1939-40 Alan Turing and another Cambridge mathematician, Gordon Welchman, designed a new machine, the British Bombe. The basic property of the Bombe was that it could break any Enigma-enciphered message, provided that the hardware of the Enigma was known and that a plain-text 'crib' of about 20 letters could be guessed accurately.


Turing is the only scientist given much name space here. Look at the statue of him at Bletchley Park. And read this for Turing love in context.



Should you remember Alan Turing as a scientist who was gay, as a gay scientist, or as a scientist?

If you're concerned only with the work, consider him a scientist.

But doesn't that miss part of the picture? Don't we tend these days to look at a lot more than one's work?

We used to, certainly. Biographies of 17th century scientists have scant personal information excluding "Born on, married at, took degree at, died on."

But now we look at the person. We look at Stephen Hawking's ALS, Einstein's love of women. And while you might argue that Turing's ability to keep a secret regarding his orientation made him more able to deal with his secrets at work, I'd argue that knowing he'd probably be killed if he talked had at least as much to do with it.

Alan Turing, to me, was a scientist who was gay. That's my position partly because bigots like to pretend homosexuality is recent invention. But that's my position also because had Turing married, had kids and done the whole hetero thing (naturally, not by convenience), biographies of him would mention that family. And a biography of him that would mention a family should mention why Turing didn't marry.


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