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Hawking, Nurse, Rees, lords demand Alan Turing's pardon

The Atlantic and others reveal that Stephen Hawking along with Paul Nurse, Martin Rees, and many lords I don't know wrote a petition to David Cameron in which they urge the leader to formally rehabilitate a British hero and top computer scientist, Alan Turing, who was born 100 years ago.

Even though this man invented the concept of a Turing machine, a cornerstone of computer science, and led the team of Enigma codebreakers during the war, he wasn't immune against accusations of active homosexuality, especially because they were manifestly true.




Turing was sentenced to doses of estrogen that brought him impotency combined with breasts. He wasn't sure which of those things was more frustrating but whatever the answer was, he followed the example of his fairy-tale hero, Ms Snow White, and poisoned himself with an apple of an unhealthy color that later became the logo of Steve Jobs' company, the conceivable legend says.

Of course, I think that harassment of great men for their homosexuality is wrong. But I tend to agree that this pardon is mostly an example of a futile attempt to rewrite the history. What he did was illegal at that time and Turing, much like 100,000 other convicted men, did have to face a punishment. The Britons may be ashamed of that today but they can't change their history. Most of the convicted gays are dead by now and the country can't credibly compensate them in most cases – most of the historical wrongdoing, if you classify it in this way, is here in the spacetime to stay.



Also, I feel uncomfortable with the universal "we are more civilized than our ancestors" meme. If there is a disagreement between our generations and the generations of our faraway ancestors, it's a very tough question how to determine who is right. If you organize the vote today, you get one result. But if you had organized the poll 70 years ago, you would have gotten a different result. Our ancestors could officially declare that their descendants would have had been going to be (or whatever is the right tense) perverse sickos if they learned about the opinions that would prevail in their future. They could even adopt policies that would prevent the current sicko generation from being born. Acausality is a mess. ;-)

I am inclined to consider most of the evolution to be a sign of "positive progress" but I am very far from thinking that every single habit we have today and every single value or principle we cherish today is better than its inequivalent counterpart in the past. Many things are deteriorating. The identity of these things may be subjective to a certain extent but the general myth that "everything is better today" is a symptom of a "presentist chauvinism", nothing else.

The disagreement between the generations is a dispute that may only be fairly solved "from the viewpoint of the eternity" or from the "spacetime point of view", using a more physical jargon, due to its intertemporal character, and the polls relying on today's political balances violate this "eternalist neutrality" so they're inherently unfair, regardless of your opinions about this particular ethical question. In other words, our generation should remain modest and realize that we may only "control" the world at the present time (plus minus some error margin dictated by the inertia). We can't rewrite the history; and we can't order our distant ancestors in the future to protect all of our current ethical values. Our relevance and rights are limited and presentist rather than unlimited and eternalist!

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reader delusionbuster said...

I agree with your comment but my future descendants might find you naive so I apologise for them now although there is nothing to stop them from refuting my apology. Merry Christmas to you and your followers.


reader Luboš Motl said...

LOL. And Merry Christmas to you, and others, too.


reader Peter F. said...

I like and thank you Lubos for the expression "presentist chauvinism". It is surely a useful one!


reader Peter F. said...

I would like (or not like? :-\) some X-raying comments on the following thinking of mine apropos Lumo's (your) words about Evolution [words, that I agree with, to the effect of that he sees it as a largely progressively pattern-producing process but by no means a perfect one!]

Against the universe's overall flow from order to disorder, its apparently inbuilt evolutionary patterning tendency has with sharply decreasing (initially at least 'exponentially' decreasing) ubiquity built increasingly functionally complex/tightly functionally integrated 'subsystems' (so to speak).

Here is how I see the initial order of the evolutionary (as opposed to devolutionary) poppings into the energy patterned type of existence (the most meaningful kind of existence we know something substantial about, until the Landscape is fairly fully mathematically mapped and explored ;-}):

The "functional complexity" of the properties of the first 'stringy/D-brany energy-space spawning spark' that started this universe was less than that of the subsequent nucleon plasma < nucleons < hydrogen atoms < heavier atoms < small molecules < large molecules < metabolizing compounds of molecules < metabolizing and self-replicating compounds of molecules < prokaryotes < eukaryotes < single eukaryots with more organelles < single cells with a greater repertoire of responses (greater adaptive flexibility), multicellular eukaryotes < etcetera etcetera until today's technologically enhanced and increasingly technologically integrated and extremely adaptively flexible, but perhaps not adaptively flexible enough to continue evolving progressively nor perhaps even preserve themselves much longer as a species, humans.


reader Smoking Frog said...

Our ancestors could officially declare that their descendants would have
had been going to be (or whatever is the right tense) perverse sickos
if they learned about the opinions that would prevail in their future.



I don't even want to take a shot at what that means, but I think I know what you mean: If our ancestors had learned of present-day opinions, they could have declared us to be perverse sickos. Right?

.
There are people on the left who advocate human extinction. Maybe it would be amusing for some conservatives to advocate human extinction on the grounds that our descendants will be perverse sickos.


reader Luke Lea said...

Conquest of one people by another is no longer acceptable behavior, certainly not in the West. Should the West therefore apologize for the conquest of America? A lot of people would say yes. But how many would wish that it never happened? Would the world be a better place if it hadn't?


reader James Gallagher said...

The myth about the Apple logo was debunked by Steve Jobs himself - he said it wasn't true (the reference to Turing's biting into a poison apple) but he damn well wished it was true!


btw I think Nurse etc (not sure about Hawking) do realise we can't go back in time and change history, but they like these popular gimmicks (especially at christmas time) which help promote moral superiority (especially in themselves) and make people forget that pre-Hitler British politicians were quite in favour of all sorts of extreme stuff like eugenics .


Really we just need to pass a bill which states as fact that "we were really fucking nasty to all sorts of unfortunate people and we promise not to do it again"


reader Shannon said...

Yeah, how many ? and who ? We want names !


reader Luboš Motl said...

Vinetou and, to some extent, Old Shatterhand. ;-)


And how many people are upset that our ancestors jumped from the comet and decided to colonize Earth? And our mammal great^{2 million} grandfathers stole much of the Earth's land from dinosaurs and birds and crocodiles and all these discriminated against races.


reader Bob Felts said...

It brings to mind C. S. Lewis' "chronological snobbery".


reader cynholt said...

As an act of honoring a brilliant man who was a hero of WWII, this pardon is a no-brainer, Lubos.


The persecution and lack of acknowledgement for Turing's work is the
height of hypocrisy. Without him, the Nazis might have won World War II
and most of the world would be speaking German, the rest Japanese.



But it took the Vatican centuries to pardon Galileo, so I sure as
hell hope it does not take British homophobic snobbery centuries to
pardon Turing!


reader Robert Rehbock said...

I recall but looked in vain for a remark made to press by someone , perhaps Heisenberg himself, frustrated in explaining it. It was to the effect that why should it be a surprise that present events cannot be with certainty known given that in reading history in the press the past is also not consistently known.
It is true that we cannot undo this shame any more than any other. It is likely true that we will also continue to excuse ourselves our past bad while committing that which in future we will excuse ourselves for.
I am not sure that this means anything or adds anything but certainly I prefer we learn from our past failings rather than deny or defend them. Reading the press I am not so sure. I am sure Turing is past caring.


reader John Archer said...

Well I'm a Briton—though not a homosexual (yeeuck!)—but if I were Turing's ghost I'd want to pimp-slap these little pumped-up moral posturers with a nailed-up cricket bat until their brains were splattered all over the walls for pushing their useless shitty little fevered empty moral gestures down others' throats. Actually, they are a lot worst than useless. Perversely they demonstrate exactly the kind of intolerance shown to Turing. There's a deep homomorphism here. They just don't get the fucking IRONY. I bet Turing would though.

He's not sullied in any way by what those old bastards did to him and only THEY can apologise for it, not any of us. And none of this has anything to do with Turing anyway — it's all about THEM.

Turing doesn't need them, to say the least. Yes, what happened to him was very sad and, in my view, deeply unjust. But nothing we do now can undo that. These modern public morality 'incantations' only demean the memory of the great man and harm the rest of us with the blind irrationality of it all.

These modern-day druids want to turn him into another Princess 'Di' so they can emote all over the fucking place, big themselves up and cow the rest of us. 'Racism' is another of their favourite cries. Enough! End this shit. End them.


reader thorsten said...

Bravo!


I'd have less trouble damning our ancestors for their homophoby, if our general progress since that time had been more obvious. Still, any time I read / look at / listen to works of art in the widest sense of the word (literature, journalism, music both serious and popular, architecture, painting) that stem from the "Victorian" (and contemporary Belle-Epoque and Wilhelminisch) era, I am humbled and impressed by how much higher the esthetic, stylistic and expressive level of these people was compared to what came afterwards or what is today. Who are we to judge the Victorians, we who listen to Lady Gaga rather than Gilbert and Sullivan, we who show Picasso and Beuys in our museums rather than the Pre-Raphaelites....


reader Sage Basil said...

Turing loved messing around with chemicals and not following proper safety procedures. There's no evidence he intentionally poisoned himself.

Of course, both sides liked the narrative that he killed himself because he was gay, which is why everyone keeps saying that.


reader Walter Starck said...

Perhaps one of the most useful lessons of history is that most people most of the time are wrong. Much of what is widely accepted as unquestionable truth at any given time is later considered to be primitive nonsense and it is unlikely we are now at the end of that process.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Sorry, Cynthia, but a pardon isn't an honor to brilliant men. In fact, in most cases, a pardon (and/or amnesty) is a service done in compassion to people with lots of other problems.


There is nothing special - and there should be nothing special - about the recipients of a pardon. Whether someone breaks the law and whether someone is a brilliant or rich or powerful or otherwise achieved man are two completely different questions and should be held separate as much as possible.


reader Gordon Wilson said...

I entirely disagree that Turing had to undergo a punishment. He reported a break-in to his flat. Unknown to him, an accomplice was a young man he had seen three times and who spent the night at his flat. The police in investigating this determined that there was a

relationship and charged Turing. Talk about perverted.

It is similar to police today responding to a call, say, to your flat after you report a burgary, and while talking to you, a constable sees afew grams of marijuana in your cupboard and charges you with possession, and some toxic prosecutor wants to plunk you in prison for 10 years (not hyperbole in some southern states.).

The police did not need to charge Turing while they were supposedly investigating a break-in where he was the victim. I am sure that many of the politicians and judges were gay...Hamlet has something say about this (to Polonius Act2 scene 2)-"use every


man after his desert, and who should 'scape


whipping? Use them after your own honor


and dignity."


reader Dilaton said...

"Turing was sentenced to doses of estrogen that brought him impotency combined with breasts."

That is among the worst, perverse, abnormal, morbid, and pathological, sencence outspoken in a wonnabe civilized country at that particular point in spacetime I have ever heared about!

I mean, if the society did not accept homosexuality then, and it was in fact illegal they could have sentenced him to a monetary fine, put him in prison, banned him, etc

But this abnormal and morbid verdict just proofs that people who claimed to be highly moral and who invented such abominable pusishment then, were perverse ****** themselfs!

But I agree that it is silly trying to change history now, what happend has happend


reader Gordon Wilson said...

I gave you an upvote, but I don't think this is changing history. I am suspicious of the motives of some of the people proposing it (ie pc-motivated and self-serving crap), but it IS the right thing to do. Just because there is a law doesn't mean everyone has to obey it, and if disobeyed, doesn't mean it is or needs to be enforced. The US and the internet are replete with old laws, never repealed that are so so loopy it is hard to believe that they weren't invented by the Onion....

The list in the URL is not from the Onion, unfortunately---

http://www.bored.com/crazylaws/


reader Gordon Wilson said...

I am sure I don't care what the Vatican has done. In fact, the more it does to look foolish, the better so that more fearful and brainwashed Catholics achieve enlightenment (ie pardoning Galileo). Turing is a different case. It would have been different if the church had pardoned Galileo within 50 years or so of his death. I cannot believe that Lubos believes that everyone should obey every law on the books, or, if he/she breaks an unjust or incredibly loopy one, that he/she needs to be charged and punished....look at the url I posted.
The US jails also are full of people with minor drug offences and the enforcement is incredibly selective---ie Willie Nelson is charged in Texas with marijuana possession----no punishment ---
If Willie were an18 year old black kid---who knows?


reader cynholt said...

Private, for-profit prisons are one of the worst ideas from what now
looks like The Era Of Bad Ideas. One of the foundational goals of
America, stated in the Declaration of Independence was "the pursuit of
happiness". Presumably this occurs outside a cage in which one is forced
to live. It would follow that one of our goals would be to have fewer
people living in cages. Now we have created an incentive, profits, to
put and keep people in cages. Instantly, we have an interest group in
favor of caging human beings and opposing any alternatives to prison
terms. This policy is brilliantly and shamefully short-sighted and has
no place in a free society.


reader Casper said...

More proof if any is needed that, outside of his narrow specialty, anything that Hawking says or does is brain-dead.