Turing, Wilde

How can we say we’re civilised?

A friend of mine has worked ceaselessly over the past few weeks to raise enough money to make a bid for Alan Turing’s papers. Sadly, the bid was unsuccessful although the papers haven’t yet been sold.

How could this even come about?

Alan Turing was a mathematician and logician who was highly influential in the creation of what we now call computer science or informatics. The machine you’re reading this on right now may not have existed were it not for his pioneering work. During the second world war, he worked at Bletchley Park, Britain’s code-breaking centre, and (amongst other things) devised the algorithms used to crack codes generated by the Enigma machine.

Why is it, then, that a private individual needs to scrounge around the internet seeking donations to retain these papers in the Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park? Why is there even any question of where they belong?

And how was Turing repaid for his services? He was arrested for homosexuality in 1952 and given a choice of chemical castration or prison. Two years later he was dead.

It took fifty five years from the date of his death for the British Government to apologise for the way this beautiful genius was treated by the country he served so valiantly – the same amount of time, incidentally, between Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment for the same ‘offence’ and Turing’s own sentencing.

And they couldn’t stump up the cash to retain documents of such importance? Despite bailing out banks who squandered carelessly? Despite letting Vodafone off the hook with their tax bill? They could have purchased these papers for a fraction the cost of politicians second homes for a few months.

So I ask again – how can we say we’re civilised? We persecute the Wildes, the Turings, the Tchaikovskys, and apologise fifty years after the fact. But do we then go on to acknowledge their contributions? Do our children know who they are? Are they taught about the contributions to art, science, and knowledge that these magnificent people made?

No.

Instead they venerate Simon Cowell for his rudeness and wealth. They venerate Piers Morgan for….. no readily apparent reason. They venerate the latest z-list celebrity to win “I’m a non-celebrity x-factoid strictly on ice”.

Sometimes I fear all beauty, originality and genius is fleeing the planet. Maybe it’s safer to do so.

So, Gareth, many many thanks for your valiant attempt at bringing a little bit of decency to Britain. As long as the likes of you are around, we haven’t lost the fight just yet.

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