Saving Alan Turing from His Friends

The Imitation Game

a film directed by Morten Tyldum

Alan Turing: The Enigma

by Andrew Hodges
Princeton University Press, updated edition with a new preface by the author, 736 pp., $16.95 (paper)
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Alan Turing as a young man

It turns out that breaking Nazi codes in World War II is a pretty simple affair. All you have to do is put half a dozen math wizards into a Quonset hut and make them argue a lot. If you’re lucky, one of them—the guy who stands out for his social awkwardness—turns out to be a cranky genius who single-handedly designs a miraculous machine that solves all their problems at a stroke.

Like all lonely heroes, though, this one suffers from a tragic flaw: he’s gay. He does his best to hide this weakness, but sometimes he just can’t help himself. So, for example, he names his remarkable machine after the dead school chum who was his first love. (This, of course, is designed to remind us of his inability to form stable human relationships.)

Fortunately, the hero does get an opportunity to partake of some much-needed psychotherapy. When the police start investigating a crime that reveals his homosexuality, he seizes the opportunity to unburden himself to a detective, spilling the beans about all of his ultrasecret wartime activities. Later, after court-mandated hormone therapy to “cure” him of his sexual urges reduces him to a sniveling wreck, he opts for the only logical way out: killing himself.

What I’m synopsizing here is The Imitation Game, a new movie that purports to tell the story of Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician and codebreaker whose individual contribution to Allied victory in World War II can be rightfully ranked in its significance alongside those of Eisenhower and Churchill. During his service at the now legendary British signals intelligence organization in Bletchley Park, some fifty-five miles northwest of London, Turing engineered the most effective attacks on encoded German communications—most memorably by figuring out how to track the insanely complicated workings of the Enigma, the formidable cipher machine that the German armed forces used for much of their communications.

Nor was Turing merely a phenomenally gifted cryptanalyst. As Jack Copeland elaborates in his fine recent biography, he also lives on for his pioneering work in the fields of computer science, artificial intelligence, and the mathematical bases of life. Every one of the smart devices that populate our lives today—every smartphone, tablet, laptop, and mainframe—owes its origins to Turing’s original vision of the stored-program computer (hardware that could change its function according to programs placed in memory rather than having to be rewired for each new task). As if this weren’t enough, Turing also turned out to be a gifted long-distance runner who competed on equal terms with Olympic athletes.

I’ve been fascinated by Turing ever since I came across the remarkable account of his life written by the British mathematician and gay rights activist Andrew Hodges in 1983. The moment of publication was no accident, for two reasons. First, by the early…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.