On the shoulders of giants

By | 2012/06/23

If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.

Sir Isaac Newton.

Newton was not being modest with what he said – he was speaking the fundamental truth of each generation of humanity. With each passing year or decade, each member of society is theoretically capable of contributing more, and making greater achievements than the generation before it on account of the accumulated knowledge and achievements of those who came before us.

Newton himself become a giant – a genius whose theories greatly expanded human understanding and allowed others to stand higher, see farther.

Another such giant was Alan Turing.

Alan Turing

Born 23 June 1912, Alan would have been 100 if he were still alive today.

He was a genius mathematician who was instrumental to the Allied victory in the second world war; his design of computational engines to break Axis cryptography played as much, if not more, a part in the victory as thousands of soldiers did. All of which was done, of course, in secret at the time. We may in fact never know the full story of everything achieved at Bletchley Park.

Yet that was only part of Alan’s story, for he didn’t just act as a critical part in the war effort – he also became the father of computing theory. As any computer scientist will tell you, Turing’s initial theories on algorithms, programming and testing for artificial intelligence have long been acknowledged as critical fundamental groundwork in computing.

He was also gay.

In 1952 he was convicted of homosexuality, which was still illegal at the time in the UK. He was given a choice between imprisoned, or chemical castration via hormone treatment, and he chose the latter. He died by suicide in 1954, driven to it by both the ongoing persecution (gays at that time in the UK were fundamentally suspected of espionage, etc.) and the depression caused by his hormone treatment.

He was destroyed by an uncaring society that neither knew, nor would have cared, about his efforts during the war. He took his own life before he got to see the fundamental, monumental change he’d initiated for all of humanity. We talk of the stone age, the bronze age, and the iron age, but history was so unspecific that there was no defining person that we could say “This person was responsible for the new age”.

We’re now in the information age, and for the first time, we can point to people who were fundamental to the creation of a new age. Alan Turing is one of those people.

The irony couldn’t be more obvious – all those bigots and homophobes who spew their messages of hate to audiences far and wide: they’re doing it, they’re able to reach their audience by standing on the shoulders of a giant. A gay giant.

Happy Birthday, Alan Turing.

Correction: When I searched for the shoulders-of-giants quote, I’d found it erroneously attributed to Einstein. I’ve corrected it above.