“Yours in distress”: a letter from Alan Turing

From Letters of Note we get a poignant letter from Alan Turing (1912-1954) written to the mathematician Normal Routledge in 1952, shortly before Turing pleaded guilty to “gross indecency” for having sexual relations with men. (It’s hard to imagine that being a crime, but of course it was the situation for many years in England; it was, in fact, the crime for which Oscar Wilde was convicted.)

Turing was given a choice between prison and “chemical castration” (injection with stilbesterol, which renders one impotent, among other things). Turing chose the latter. As most of us know, Turing appeared to have committed suicide in 1954 by eating a cyanide-laced apple, though some biographers claim it might have an accident (Turing was doing experiments involving cyanide).

At any rate, here’s the letter:

My dear Norman,

I don’t think I really do know much about jobs, except the one I had during the war, and that certainly did not involve any travelling. I think they do take on conscripts. It certainly involved a good deal of hard thinking, but whether you’d be interested I don’t know. Philip Hall was in the same racket and on the whole, I should say, he didn’t care for it. However I am not at present in a state in which I am able to concentrate well, for reasons explained in the next paragraph.

I’ve now got myself into the kind of trouble that I have always considered to be quite a possibility for me, though I have usually rated it at about 10:1 against. I shall shortly be pleading guilty to a charge of sexual offences with a young man. The story of how it all came to be found out is a long and fascinating one, which I shall have to make into a short story one day, but haven’t the time to tell you now. No doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who I’ve not found out.

Glad you enjoyed broadcast. Jefferson certainly was rather disappointing though. I’m afraid that the following syllogism may be used by some in the future.

Turing believes machines think
Turing lies with men
Therefore machines do not think

Yours in distress,

Alan

At least the syllogism didn’t take hold.

turing_400

h/t: Grania

60 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted November 29, 2014 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    One of the great injustices.

    • Filippo
      Posted November 30, 2014 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      Sub.

  2. Posted November 29, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Snow White…

    • Posted December 1, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      Exactly. One of Turing’s favourite movies, apparently. He was fond of the “seeping death”.

      I think the reason it may have looked like he was playing with cyanides again was to allow his mother her peace – she didn’t understand him as a scholar or as a person, unfortunately.

      • Filippo
        Posted December 1, 2014 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

        I’m prompted to wonder whom and what she thought she understood.

  3. Posted November 29, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    “It’s hard to imagine that being a crime”

    Still on the books in many US states.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted November 29, 2014 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      Really?

      • Posted November 29, 2014 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

        Yes and no.

        Wikipedia has a good summary:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sodomy_laws_in_the_United_States

        The short version is that, ever since a 2003 US Supreme Court ruling (Lawrence v Texas), sodomy laws are unconstitutional. However, seventeen states still retain the laws on the books despite the fact that the laws are now unenforceable.

        And, of course, many states still fail to recognize same-sex marriage….

        b&

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted November 29, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

          So there’s never been a ruling on homosexuality in particular or does sodomy only cover that sexual act?

          • Posted November 29, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

            It would be tough to outlaw a feeling. Sodomy is used as a sort of a benchmark for homosexuality, although obviously not all homosexuals engage in it. And many heterosexuals do.

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted November 29, 2014 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

              Homosexuality hasn’t been categorized as sodomy around here since 1933, so I’m a bit confused as to what constitues sodomy.

              That it may be repressed to only a feeling hasn’t stopped lawgivers of the past.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted November 29, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

                I know Canada’s sodomy laws were repealed in 1969 when our PM at the time, Pierre Trudeau introduced a bill to do so & famously stated, “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”.

                Wikipedia talks about sodomy laws in many countries here.

            • defonceur
              Posted November 30, 2014 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

              Sodomy isn’t just anal sex, it covers oral sex too. The infamous Bowers ruling was triggered by Hardwick getting interrupted while engaging in oral sex.

              I remember a cranky letter-to-the editor in a conservative newspaper during the Monica Lewinsky scandal that (accurately) described Lewinsky as a “sodomite.”

              SoDoMy friends!

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted November 29, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

            I believe the term “sodomy” is used in different ways in different states. But I’m not an expert on USian law, nor particularly affected by it. I do note that many of the laws would seem to ban consensual anal sex within a heterosexual couple, which might be a useful test case for cracking some of those laws off the statute books.

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted November 29, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

              The State of X vs. Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

              The porn industry would be devastated depending on the ruling.

              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted November 29, 2014 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

                The pr0n industry will pay (pardonnez-moi mon Franglais) for the fucking appeal.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted November 29, 2014 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

              Typically sodomy laws forbid anal & oral sex & bestiality. How this is enforced, I have no idea. Are there undercover agents.

              “Aha!” shouted the officer as he sprung forth from his cow costume! 😀

              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted November 29, 2014 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

                Spy cameras.
                No, seriously.

              • Posted November 29, 2014 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

                There was the case of a local guy written up in The Okville Beaver maybe 25 yrs ago, when Oakville still had some farmland, even some adjacent to the QEW(freeway). Said guy was caught with his pants down apparently “petting” some sheep. Said his belt had broken. The sheep had sustained injuries over the past few months which had been attributed to coyotes. Family man w 3 or 4 kids. I don’t believe the sheep were willing.

            • Posted November 29, 2014 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

              Not necessary, fortunately. The laws are still on the books, yes, but the Supreme Court has already invalidated them. Any prosecutor who tried to charge somebody on violations of those laws would receive such a can of federal whoop-ass you’d need to invoke Aztec burial techniques to deal with the resulting volume of lawyer gore.

              b&

              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted November 29, 2014 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

                Your scenario has a certain attraction to it.

            • John Dumas
              Posted November 30, 2014 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

              Sodomy isn’t just anal sex, it covers oral sex too. The infamous Bowers ruling was triggered by Hardwick getting interrupted while engaging in oral sex.

              I remember a cranky letter-to-the editor in a conservative newspaper during the Monica Lewinsky scandal that (accurately) described Lewinsky as a “sodomite.”

              SoDoMy friends!

        • Filippo
          Posted November 30, 2014 at 7:29 am | Permalink

          But way too many noble, enlightened Amuricuns would vote a state law maker out of office if s/he voted to remove an obsolete/unenforceable law off the books.

          They gripe to no end about the federal government in Washington, DC, but can’t be bothered to similarly scrutinize and lament about their own state, county and local governments. Every state is The Greatest State in Land of the Free, as Amuricuns are wont to remind us during bloviating state delegation speeches prefacing declaring their votes for a given presidential candidate during the quadrennial presidential political party conventions.

  4. Posted November 29, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    I’ll note that the conclusion of that syllogism remains the standard to this day, though not concluded by the preceding two lines.

    Whom Turing did, didn’t, should, or shouldn’t have lain with matters not. Machines do think, for most reasonable definitions of, “machines,” and, “think.”

    We now know, as surely as we know that the Sun rises in the East, that brains are complex biochemical machines. We also know that what computers do can only reasonably be described as thought — to suggest that a computer can mop the floor with the greatest human chessmasters and even quiz show champions without thinking is absurd.

    Turing’s own mind was one of the greatest in all of human history. And the persecution that drove him to suicide by making his private life public was itself one of the greatest crimes in all of history.

    b&

    • Kevin
      Posted November 29, 2014 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      One of the greatest minds in all of history, so true, and circumstances surrounding his life, so sad.

      • Rod
        Posted November 29, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

        Wonder what he could have accomplished in the 40-odd more years he might have lived…. well into the computer age in which we now live; it might have come sooner, or appear different had Turing been with us.

        Pretty sad….

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted November 29, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

      as surely as we know that the Sun rises in the East

      That is a definition. The meaning of “East” is “the direction in which the Sun rises”, though it is more often expressed as “a North pole of rotation is the pole where the roation is counter-clockwise”. I think that you can probably relate it ultimately to the asymmetry of decay of K-zero mesons, but for day to day astronomy when you’re trying to work out the orientation of rotation axes and express it in heliocentric orbital parameters, you use a definition which is equivalent to “the sun rises in the east.

      brains are complex biochemical machines.

      That, on the other hand, is a description, not a definition.
      Whether computers “think” still needs a working definition of “think”. That’s outside my pay grade, but it’s definitely an open question. Chess-playing computers generally brute-force solutions these days, with a substantial contribution from stored libraries of beginnings and endings. Go-playing computers need to be much more subtle because the game space (around 10^170) is somewhat larger than that for chess (around 10^50) and is rather less susceptible to brute-forcing. (For comparison, IIRC, the approximate size of the observable universe is around 10^80 particles. Including photons and neutrinos.) But that aside, when I hung out with Go programmers, no-one described their methods as “thinking”. Pattern matching, brute-forcing a tesuji, broad-brush strategy sweeps are techniques that do work, and have in the last two decades brought standards of computer Go up from “being beaten by any un-ranked beginner” to “small clubs may not have any players capable of beating the best go-playing Beowulfs.”
      Where Turing would have taken British computing in the late 1950s and 1960s is hard to imagine.
      I suggested to the wife seeing the “Imitation Game” when I get back onshore ; she’s not terribly interested. But I think that the Aged Parents (TM) may be into a day at Bletchley Park next time I’m on the Plains of Englandshire.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted November 29, 2014 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

        and express it in heliocentric orbital parameters, you use a definition which is equivalent to “the sun rises in the east.

        Oops. Uranus. And, for that matter, Pluto-Charon.

      • Posted November 29, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

        Whether computers “think” still needs a working definition of “think”.

        A number of those from the dictionary that ships with Mac OS X would seem to fit perfectly:

        direct one’s mind toward someone or something; use one’s mind actively to form connected ideas

        (think of/about) take into account or consideration when deciding on a possible action

        (think of/about) consider the possibility or advantages of (a course of action)

        call something to mind; remember

        imagine (an actual or possible situation)

        Those are all examples of exactly what we use computers for daily.

        That’s outside my pay grade, but it’s definitely an open question. Chess-playing computers generally brute-force solutions these days, with a substantial contribution from stored libraries of beginnings and endings.

        But does the manner in which computers think really matter to whether or not they do so?

        A cat runs with four legs; you run with two. Is one of you running and the other not?

        Your job is digging wells, no? Does it matter that you use a drill powered by a thousands-of-horsepower motor to dig for oil, and that the first people to engage in that activity used shovels to drill for water? If ever there were an example of a brute-force solution, it’s what your toys do.

        And the earliest imagined heavier-than-air flying machines were bird mimics — ornithopters. Does that mean that that 737 I see in the far distance isn’t flying?

        Maybe you could argue for a linguistic tic. Submarines don’t swim; they sail beneath the waves…but we still recognize them as doing the same basic thing as whales, even though the motive power and mechanism are radically different.

        b&

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted November 29, 2014 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

          The internal techniques the computers use to (say) beat an international grandmaster are not the techniques that chess grandmasters use to resist the same computers. This is even more true in the case of Go where the best of machine systems are around 1/4 of the strength of the best of the professionals (after 40 years of programming effort ; and the professionals are continuing to get stronger). The Go programming community don’t claim to have thinking systems (with the exception of a certain mad Dutch-Norwegian nutter, who hopefully has been sectioned by now ; I’ve not followed the scene for years), but their systems are much more varied and sophisticated than chess systems.
          Maybe it’s more a case that psychology and neurobiology still do not know what “to think” means to a human being. Or cat, for that matter. Or d*g, even. Caenorhabditis elegans, we should understand – 1031 cells, fully-known connectome … but does it “think”?

          • Posted December 1, 2014 at 6:53 am | Permalink

            The internal techniques the computers use to (say) beat an international grandmaster are not the techniques that chess grandmasters use to resist the same computers.

            Agreed, most emphatically.

            But the techniques a submarine uses to move about underneath the ocean are perhaps even more radically different from the techniques whales use for that job. Same thing for birds and planes, or humans with shovels and your drilling rig.

            Seems we do ourselves a disservice to focus on the technique employed rather than the task accomplished.

            b&

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted December 3, 2014 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

              There are real differences. To the best of my knowledge, whales don’t have access to freely rotating joints larger than in their flagella. Sometimes differences really are fundamental.
              I suspect that by calling what Chess (or Go) computers “thinking” we’ll hamper the development of both AI (in a fairly loose sense) and also our understanding of how humans really do think.

  5. Diana MacPherson
    Posted November 29, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Poor Turing. Having to endure chemical castration & it’s side effects is indeed barbaric for a healthy person who had nothing wrong with him!

  6. darrelle
    Posted November 29, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Societies so often do the worst things to those who contribute most to its progress.

    Prudishness has given religion a run for its money as “beliefs most often used to justify treating others like shit” throughout human history. Of course, prudishness is typically codified into religious doctrine and beliefs, so maybe that comparison is not fair.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted November 29, 2014 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      Separating prudery and religion is like trying to separate inside and outside of a condom. Like trying to get the bishop out of the choir-boy. (OK – I’ll be gender neutral – “chorister” ; some bishops like a choir-girl for a change of surroundings, if not activity.)

      • darrelle
        Posted November 29, 2014 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

        I can’t disagree with that. It is, therefore, time for a nice beer. A Hofbrau Dunkel I think. Dunkel is about my favorite German style of beer.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted November 29, 2014 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

          Dry rig. Warm brown sludge, cool transparent sludge, orange sludge. Vive la difference!

  7. Keith Cook or more
    Posted November 29, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    What a big fat fail for the British Government of the day, even I feel regret about the conditions of his death, the waste of a life and a great mind.
    The letter shows him to be a nice guy as well.

    “Science is a differential equation. Religion is a boundary condition”
    Alan Turing

  8. bonetired
    Posted November 29, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Times and society mercifully change. Look at British society niw and see how far it has moved.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted November 29, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      I was helping a friend re-paint his front door to cover up the “die AIDS faggot scum” graffiti last year.
      What was that you were saying about society having changed?

      • bonetired
        Posted November 29, 2014 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

        Sigh. I understand where you are coming from but despite bigots like the one you mention, I believe that British society IS better than it was both officially (gay marriage is now legal) and generally with a much greater tolerance of people of different sexuality or race. I am just a bit more optimistic than you …

        • Posted November 29, 2014 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

          Just because we’ve come a long way doesn’t mean that we’re not still fucked up.

          Closer to home…my mom’s recovering spectacularly from her back surgery a month ago, surpassing everybody’s expectations (but, honestly, not mine — she’s a tough old bird). She’s probably done with the walker save as a prop for exercises, and she’s off the narcotics and only using less-than-maximum doses of over-the-counter painkillers.

          …but she still hurts, still has limited mobility, still has fatigue, still can’t work in the garden, still has a long way to go.

          b&

          • Posted November 29, 2014 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

            Good news about your mom, Ben🐱

          • Diane G.
            Posted November 29, 2014 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

            Glad to hear that, Ben.

            • Diane G.
              Posted November 29, 2014 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

              &resub

  9. Mark R.
    Posted November 29, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    “It would be an exaggeration to say that the British mathematician Alan Turing explained the nature of logical and mathematical reasoning, invented the digital computer, solved the mind-body problem and saved Western civilization. But it would not be much of an exaggeration.”
    -Steven Pinker

    I desperately wonder where Turing would have taken us had this injustice never happened.

  10. merilee
    Posted November 29, 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Do go see the new movie about him, The Imitation Game. It’s very good. Have followed Turing’s fascinating and sad story for years. Some very good books, and plays, out there about him.

    • bric
      Posted November 29, 2014 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      The film is certainly worth seeing but, as with any film biography, there are considerable liberties taken with the source material, Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma. Read the book if you can get hold of it.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted November 30, 2014 at 5:13 am | Permalink

        Turing is also a character in fiction, e.g. Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and Connie Willis’ Blackout (or is it All Clear?). He’s drawn mainly from Hodges, but it’s one way of being immortal (not the preferred one, as Woody Allen pointed out).

        • Posted November 30, 2014 at 10:34 am | Permalink

          Yes, the book by Hodges is the excellent one I read eons ago. Also saw a play based on the book 20+ years ago.

      • Posted December 3, 2014 at 10:31 am | Permalink

        It is back in print (last I checked) so it might be buyable, if one has spending money and so on.

  11. E.A. Blair
    Posted November 29, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    “At least the syllogism didn’t take hold.”

    I’m not so sure about that. Have you seen this sign? Apparently the only purpose of computers is for gay men to trade porn and hook up for sex.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted November 29, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      I thought that sign was one made by Gay Rights activists to mock their detractors?

      What was done to Turing was cruel beyond belief. I’ve always wondered if there was one person driving a vendetta of some kind behind his arrest.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted November 29, 2014 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        That link is blocked here, but I can guess. Ambling into a friend’s apartment when he’s on Gaydar or Grindr can be a little unsettling. As is looking at his art and trying to be polite (well, civil) about some of it.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted November 29, 2014 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

          It says:

          DESTROY THE COMPUTER!!!

          A HOMOSEXUAL INVENTION BY
          ALAN TURING. WHO CARES IF HE CRACKED
          THE GERMAN ENIGMA CODE AND WON
          WORLD WAR II.

          IT’S A HOMO’S DEVIL MACHINE!

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted November 29, 2014 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

            As subtle as I’d expected.

  12. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted November 29, 2014 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    The ending was very sad for a unique and brilliant mind, although I did not know that his death might have been an accident. The letter does hint that he had plans for a future.
    I talk about his story in one of my classes where I teach biological pattern formation. Among his many accomplishments, Turing proposed the idea that common color patterns and structural patterns in organisms (stripes, spots, and spirals) could be based on diffusing chemical gradients that he called morphogens. The reality turned out to be true enough, and the concept is absolutely crucial to the study of developmental biology. So his contributions had revolutionized my field as well.

  13. Posted November 29, 2014 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    🐾

  14. Posted December 3, 2014 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Reasonable Rants and commented:
    I am just wrapping up the book “Alan Turing – The Enigma” by Andrew Hodges. Great insight into the life and intellect of this formidable mathematician and father of computers and AI. I found this post relevant and interesting…. Can’t wait to see “The Imitation Game” with Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing…


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