Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Turing's Biographer's Dilemma: How Much Are You Required To Tell When You Are Required To Tell It?

Continuing our Turing Week theme, here's a post originally up in 2006:

I'm writing on Descartes for a series of biographies of famous mathematicians designed for the middle and high school reader. Before I accepted the assignment, I was given a list of figures still needing authors and one that piqued my interest was Alan Turning. not only is Turing a fascinating and underappreciated figure, but the complications of his life lead to interesting moral conundrums for whomever writes that book.

Alan Turing was a British mathematician. His work on computational algorithms and their foundations set the stage for modern computing. His conceptual philosophical work is the foundation for contemporary discussions of artificial intelligence. His work for British Intelligence during WWII including conceiving of, designing and operating the machine that broke the German enigma code, the most complex encryption method that had ever been designed, a task that would have been impossible if it had to be attempted using pre-Turing methods. It is an overstatement to say that he single-handedly won WWII for the Allies, but the claim that Nazism ended sooner because of Alan Turing's brain and the things he thought about is true.

You would think that the life of such a revolutionary who altered history in more than one way would be well known, but, no. Part of the reason is Alan Turning was gay.

This is where the biographer's moral issues come up. Alan Turning wasn't coincidentally gay, like, say Isaac Newton may have been. There is some reason to suspect that Newton was homosexual, but whether he was or not, you could tell the story of Newton just fine without this tidbit. For Turing, on the other hand, his sexuality really is an important thread in making sense of what he thought, what he did, and how he died.

Turing's first love Christopher Morcom died of tuberculosis two years after they had met. The death left Turing more than distraught and to comfort himself, he believed deeply in the existence of the mind apart from the body, a mind that could transcend death. He became obsessed with being able to contact his dead lover's immaterial mind. This led the brilliant young man to think hard about what is was to be and have a mind.

He began to think about thinking and at the time questions of computability were all the rage in mathematics. Questions about the nature of mathematics had led people to wonder which problems could be solved using strict computational means in finite numbers of steps and Turing was drawn to them because this sort of computation seemed to mirror actual thinking.

But the computations could be done mechanically. Calculating machines had been built as early as the 17th century, but Turing began to consider the possibility of being able to translate the solving of any mathematics problem into something a machine could do if we could come up with an algorithm, a set of clearly definable steps, for its solution. the question then became which problems could be solved in a finite number of steps and which problems would never finish.

The ability for machines to solve complex mathematical problems that required the capacity to work through complex instructions raised the question of whether such machines could think. To answer this, of course, some definition would be required for what it means to think. For this purpose, Turing developed what has come to be known as the "Turing test": suppose you were corresponding with someone/something such that you could type messages and received typed replies, if you are unable to tell whether your respondent is human or not then the respondent is thinking. The test is based on a game where a man and woman are placed in a room with a typewriter, questions are passed under the door, typed responses come back, and those not in the room have to guess whether it was the man or the woman who was answering the questions. Judy Genova, a philosopher from Colorado College, has a wonderful paper called "Gender and Thought in Turing's Imitation Game," examining the foundations of the Turing test and why it would be that a gay man would find the game so interesting that he would use it as a model.

In his later years, Turing was arrested for being gay and forced to undergo hormone therapy, receiving doses of estrogen and losing his security clearance, thereby destroying his occupational opportunities. Having been stripped of his ability to do intelligence work, but having been a deep part of the intelligence community he was someone the authorities wanted to keep an eye on. As a known homosexual, law enforcement saw him as a degenerate and a menace. He was not only dangerous to society in their eyes for who he was, but incredibly dangerous for what he knew. The pressure became unbearable and at age 42 he ate a poisoned apple and killed himself.

Turing's homosexuality and gay relationships are a crucial part of the story. Many pieces simply don't make sense without the fact. Do you include it in the book? Is it put in its central place? On the one hand, if you do, the book will have much less of a market and Turing will not receive his due as a hero, especially to gay young adults who would no doubt find out on their own who he was. By including the fact that Turing was gay would keep some schools from purchasing the book and destroy what is beautiful about exposing middle and high school students to the history of mathematics and getting them more excited to study it. Their math classes are often taught in dry boring ways that dehumanize the subject and kill any passion that could be generated. Here's an attempt to rehumanize it and it seems that if compromises have to be made to make some progress, then so be it. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

On the other hand, to omit the fact is to fail to do the biographer's job. If you ignore one of the central operative facts of your subject, you haven't really told the story. but worse, you have let the homophobes win. If you "cleanse" the story to make it acceptable to them, you are aiding and abetting immoral bigotry and hatred.

What would do you do?