The Turing moment

November 30th, 2014

Ed Stoppard as Alan Turing in Codebreaker
…less histrionic…
Ed Stoppard as Alan Turing in Codebreaker

We seem to be at the “Turing moment”, what with Benedict Cumberbatch, erstwhile Sherlock Holmes, now starring as a Hollywood Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. The release culminates a series of Turing-related events over the last few years. The centennial of Turing’s 1912 birth was celebrated actively in the computer science community as a kind of jubilee, the occasion of numerous conferences, retrospectives, and presentations. Bracketing that celebration, PM Gordon Brown publicly apologized for Britain’s horrific treatment of Turing in 2009, and HRH Queen Elizabeth II, who was crowned a couple of years before Alan Turing took his own life as his escape from her government’s abuse, finally got around to pardoning him in 2013 for the crime of being gay.

I went to see a preview of The Imitation Game at the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s “Science on Screen” series. I had low expectations, and I was not disappointed. The film is introduced as being “based on a true story”, and so it is – in the sense that My Fair Lady was based on the myth of Pygmalion (rather than the Shaw play). Yes, there was a real place called Bletchley Park, and real people named Alan Turing and Joan Clark, but no, they weren’t really like that. Turing didn’t break the Enigma code singlehandedly despite the efforts of his colleagues to stop him. Turing didn’t take it upon himself to control the resulting intelligence to limit the odds of their break being leaked to the enemy. And so on, and so forth. Most importantly, Turing did not attempt to hide his homosexuality from the authorities, and promoting the idea that he did for dramatic effect is, frankly, an injustice to his memory.

Reviewers seem generally to appreciate the movie’s cleaving from reality, though with varying opprobrium. “The truth of history is respected just enough to make room for tidy and engrossing drama,” says A. O. Scott in the New York Times. The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern ascribes to the film “a marvelous story about science and humanity, plus a great performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, plus first-rate filmmaking and cinematography, minus a script that muddles its source material to the point of betraying it.” At Slate, Dana Stevens notes that “The true life story of Alan Turing is much stranger, sadder and more troubling than the version of it on view in The Imitation Game, Morton Tyldum’s handsome but overlaundered biopic.

Of course, they didn’t make the movie for people like me, that is, people who had heard of Alan Turing before. And to the extent that the film contributes to this Turing moment — leading viewers to look further into this most idiosyncratic and important person — it will be a good thing. The Coolidge Corner Theatre event was followed by commentary from Silvio Micali and Seth Lloyd, both professors at MIT. (The former is a recipient of the highest honor in computer science, the Turing Award. Yes, that Turing.) Their comments brought out the many scientific contributions of Turing that were given short shrift in the film. If only they could duplicate their performance at every showing.

Those who become intrigued by the story of Alan Turing could do worse than follow up their viewing of the Cumberbatch vehicle with one of the 2012 docudrama Codebreaker, a less histrionic but far more accurate (and surprisingly, more sweeping) presentation of Turing’s contributions to science and society, and his societal treatment. I had the pleasure of introducing the film and its executive producer Patrick Sammon in a screening at Harvard a couple of weeks ago. The event was another indicator of the Turing moment. (My colleague Harry Lewis has more to say about the film.)

To all of you who are aware of the far-reaching impact of Alan Turing on science, on history, and on society, and the tragedy of his premature death, I hope you will take advantage of the present Turing moment to spread the word about computer science’s central personage.

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