Alan Turing: the enigma


Chosen by the author, Andrew Hodges

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Extract from Chapter 2

Pages 70-76

These pages of my book describe the ambience at King's College, Cambridge University, where Alan Turing became a mathematics undergraduate in 1931. The narrative is constructed to lead seamlessly from the personal to the political and economic and back again. It sets the tone for the whole of Alan Turing's adult life: a thread running through my commentary is the contrast of the idealism of 1933 with the actual demands that were to arise in 1939, and the completely unexpected aspects of 'freedom' and 'planning' that were then to emerge. It also sets the stage for the central intellectual work which Alan Turing began in this period: the study of another kind of 'general rules' — the mathematical logic that led him to the idea of the Turing machine, and hence the modern computer. I have slightly abridged this passage but it retains the essential flavour of my treatment.

King's enjoyed special privileges within the university system, and was distinguished by its opulence, thanks to a fortune amassed by John Maynard Keynes. But it also prized a moral autonomy that had been at its most pure and intense in the early 1900s, as Keynes described: [17]
... We entirely repudiated a personal liability on us to obey general rules. We claimed the right to judge every individual case on its merits, and the wisdom, experience, and self-control to do so successfully. This was a very important part of our faith, violently and aggressively held, and for the outer world it was our most obvious and damgerous characteristic. We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventional wisdom. We were, that is to say, in the strict sense of the word, immoralists. The consequences of being found out had, of course, to be considered for what they were worth. But we recognised no moral obligation on us, no inner sanction, to conform or to obey...

.... It was also part of the King's attitude to life that it regarded games, parties and gossip to be natural pleasures, and assumed that clever people would still enjoy ordinary things. Although King's had only gradually moved away from its original role as a sister foundation to Eton, there were among its dons those who made a positive effort to encourage candidates who did not come from public schools and tried to make them feel at hime. There was great emphasis on the mixing between dons and undergraduates in whct was a small college, with less than sixty students in each year. No other college was like this, and so Alan Turing gradually woke up to the fact that by chance he had arrived in a unique environment, which was as much his element as any institution could be. It corroborated what he always knew, which was that his duty was to think for himself...

The year 1933 only brought to the surface ideas which in King's had a long history. Alan shared in the climate of dissent:


Dear Mother,

Thank you for socks etc... Am thinking of going to Russia some time in vac but have not yet quite made up my mind.

I have joined an organisation called the 'Anti-War Council.' Politically rather communist. Its programme is principally to organize strikes amongst munitions and chemical workers when government intends to go to war. It gets up a guarantee fund to support the workers who strike...

Alan did not in fact go to see Russia for himself. But even if he had, he would have found himself ill-disposed to become an enthusiast for the Soviet system. Nor did he become a 'political' person in the Cambridge of the 1930s. He was not sufficiently interested in 'mere power.' Buried in the Communist Manifesto was the declaration that the ultimate aim was to make society 'an association, in which the free development of each is to be the condition for the free develoment of all.' But in the 1930s, to be a communist meant identifying with the Soviet regime, which was a very different matter. Those at Cambridge who perceived themselves as members of a responsible prefect class might well identify with the Russian rulers as a sort of better British India, collectivising and rationalising the peasants for their own good. For products of the English public schools, apt to despise trade, it was but a small step to reject capitalism, and place faith in greater state control. In many ways the Red was a mirror image of the White. Alan Turing, however, was not interested in organising anyone, and did not wish to be organised by anyone else. He had escaped from one totalitarian system, and had no yearning for another.

Marxism claimed to be scientific, and it spoke to the modern need for a rationale of historical change that could be justified by science... But Alan was not interested in the problems of history, while the marxist attempts to explain the exact sciences in terms of 'prevailing modes of production' were very remote from his ideas and experience. The Soviet Union judged relativity and quantum mechanics by political criteria, while the English theorist Lancelot Hogben sustained an economic explanation of the development of mathematics only by restricting attention to its most elementary applications. Beauty and truth, which motivated Alan Turing as they had always inspired mathematicians and scientists, were lacking. The Cambridge communists took upon themselves something of the character of a fundamentalist sect, with the air of being saved, and the element of 'conversion' met in Alan Turing the same scepticism as he had already turned on Christian beliefs. With his fellow sceptic Kenneth Harrison he would mock the communist line.

On economic questions, indeed, Alan came to think highly of Arthur Pigou, the King's economist who had played a slightly earlier part than Keynes in patching up nineteenth century liberal capitalism. Pigou held that more equal distribution of income was likely to increase economic welfare, and was an early advocate of the welfare state. Broadly similar in their outlook, both Pigou and Keynes were calling for increased state spending during the 1930s. Alan began to read the New Statesman, and could broadly be identified with the middle-class progressive opinion to which it was addressed, concerned both for individual liberty and for a more rationally organised social system. There was much talk about the benefit of scientific planning (so that Aldous Huxley's 1932 satire Brave New World could treat it as the intellectuals' already dated orthodoxy), and Alan went to talks on progressive ventures such as the Leeds Housing Scheme.* But he would not have seen himself as one of the scientific organisers and planners.

* as footnote: This gave him a tenuous link with his mother, who had shares in a Bethnal Green housing association. Alan's reaction was approval that they planned the flats for the families who needed them rather than vice versa.

In fact his idea of society was that of an aggregate of individuals, much closer to the views of democratic individualism held by J. S. Mill than that of socialists. And to keep his individual self intact, self-contained, self-sufficient, uncontaminated by compromise or hypocrisy* was his ideal. It was an ideal far more concerned with the moral than with the economic or political; and closer to the traditional values of King's than to the developing currents of the 1930s.

* as footnote: 'Regarding Aunt J's funeral,' Alan wrote in January 1934 to his mother, 'I am not v. keen on going, and I think it would be consummate hypocrisy if I did. But if yuou think anyone will be the better for my attending I will see whether it can be managed.'

Like many people (E. M. Forster among them) he found a special pleasure in discovering Samuel Butler's Erewhon. Here was a Victorian writer who had doubted the moral axioms, playing with them in Looking-Glass fashion by attaching the taboos on sex to the eating of meat, describing Anglican religion in terms of transactions in ornamental money, and exchanging the associations of 'sin' with those of 'sickness'. Alan also much admired Butler's successor Bernard Shaw, enjoying his light play with serious ideas.... Back to Methuselah, which Alan thought 'a very good play' in May 1933, was an attempt at what Shaw called 'politics sub specie aeternitatis.' With its science fiction view of Fabian ideas, treating with contempt the sordid realities of Asquith and Lloyd George, it suited Alan's idealist frame of mind.

One subject, however, did not feature in Bernard Shaw's plays, and only very rarely in the New Statesman. In 1933 its drama critic reviewed The Green Bay Tree, which was about 'a boy adopted for immoral purposes bya wealthy degenerate', and said it was 'well worth seeing for anyone who finds a pervert a less boring subject than a man with a diseased liver.' In this respect, King's College was unique. Here it was possible to doubt an axiom which Shaw left unquestioned and Butler skated over nervously.

....But the world of Keynes and Forster, the parties and comings and goings of Bloomsbury people, lat far above Alan's head. There was a glossiness about King's, whose greatest strength lay in the arts, and drama in particular, in which he had no share. If at Sherborne his sexuality was described in terms of 'filth' and 'scandal', he now also had to come to terms with that other kind of labelling the world found so important: that of the pansy, an affront and traitor to masculine supremacy. He did not find a place in this compartment; nor did the King's aesthete set, flourishing in its protected corner, reach out to a shy mathematician. As in so many ways, Alan was the prisoner of his own self-sufficiency. King's could only protect him while he worked out the problems for himself.

... In this respect he had something in common with one of his new friends, James Atkins, who was the third mathematical scholar of Alan's year. James and Alan got on well together, in an amiable manner that lacked any deep conversations about Christopher [Morcom] or science, and it was James whom Alan asked to come with him for a few days walking in the Lake District.

They were away from 21 to 30 June, so that Alan did achieve his objective of being away from home on 23 June, his 'coming of age.' In fact they were walking that day from the youth hostel at Mardale over High Street to Patterdale. The weather was unusually hot and sunny, leading Alan at one point to sunbathe naked, and perhaps encouraging him in the gentle sexual approach that he made a few days later, as they rested on the hillside. This almost accidental but electric moment was perhaps less important to Alan than to James, who had been particularly repressed at his public school and was catching up years of self-knowledge, mentally and physically. There was no repetition during the holiday, while he thought it over. In the following two weeks, he found himself roused to feelings of affection and desire for Alan. and expected to see him when he returned to Cambridge on 12 July for the long vacation term. This was not so much to study mathematics as to take part in concerts during the International Congress of Musical Research, for James found in music the absoluteness that Alan found in pure mathematics.

James did not know that the same day Alan had gone to the Clock House to remember Christopher. At Easter, he had stayed there again, taken communion at his shrine, and had written:


My dear Mrs Morcom,

I was so pleased to be at the Clock House for Easter. I always like to think of it specially in connection with Chris. It reminds us that Chris is in some way alive now. One is perhaps too inclined to think only of him alive at some future time when we shall meet him again; but it is really so much more helpful to think of him as just separated from us for the present.

His July visit coincided with the dedication of the memorial window on 13 July, which would have been Christopher's twenty-second birthday. The local children had the day off school, and laid flowers beneath the stained-glass window. A family friend preached on 'Kindness' in Christopher's memory. They all sang Christopher's favourite hymn:

Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost
Taught by Thee we covet most
Of thy gifts at Pentecost
Holy heavenly Love

... Alan returned to Cambridge two or three weeks after this bittersweet ceremony, and so it was not long before James indicated thaty he would like to continue the sexual contact that Alan had sparked off. But there was always a sense that Alan never again showed the initiative which the summer sun had elicited, and there was a complexity which James could not penetrate. The associations of Christopher, which Alan did not share with James, might have been part of the reason....

[17] I am grateful to Professor W. T. Jones for bringing this passage to my attention in describing the impression AMT made on him in 1937... Keynes' talk on My Early Beliefs, given in 1938, was published after his death as one of (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1949).

© Andrew Hodges, 1983

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