Half a century ago, Alan Turing disappeared.
A true war hero and mathematical genius, Alan Turing is also considered by many today to be the godfather of computer science and one of the precursors of artificial intelligence as a field of study. He radically, and forever, changed the destiny of Europe. But he also laid the foundations for a technological revolution that today affects every aspect of our lives.
A complex character with a broken destiny. A martyr of his time, particularly for his sexual orientation, his life nourished many fantasies. His death, however, remains a mystery to this day.
On June 7, 1954, Alan Mathison Turing, 41 years old and newly elected member of the Royal Society of London, was found lying dead on his bed. Next to him, an apple is half-eaten (a legend will make it the origin of the Apple logo, the well-known technology company).
The autopsy concluded that he had been poisoned with cyanide. It was then speculated, through an inquest, that Alan Turing would have administered himself the lethal dose of cyanide by soaking the found apple with poison before taking a bite out of it. This thesis was notably supported by two biographers: Andrew Hodges and David Leavitt, who believed that Alan Turing had wanted to replay the cult scene of his favourite fairy tale: Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
His mother, Ethel Sara Turin, didn’t believe in this suicide thesis, preferring instead that of accidental death. Indeed, for her, the death of her son was the consequence of a loose accumulation of highly toxic chemical material in his home. However, Hodges thought that Alan Turing had willingly messed up his scientific material to get his mother to reject any suicide claims.
But Turing’s mother was not alone. The specialist Jack Copeland also defended the accident theory. He explained that Alan Turing showed no signs of depression in the period before his death and that he even had a written list of projects to be carried out or in progress. He also expounded that Turing was engaged in experiments of all kinds and that he had cyanide for this purpose. According to him, the mathematician was careless or even imprudent when he was conducting these experimentations and could have inhaled a cyanide solution while trying to dissolve gold.
Other, more smoky, theses see his death as the work of the British secret service, considering him a potential risk to the communists. Finally, it has also been reported that he was a great fortune-telling enthusiast and that during an escapade at St Annes-on-Sea with the Greenbaum family, he saw a fortune-teller who told him something terrible that plunged him into deep sadness a few days before the world finds out about his death.
Thus, the exact conditions of the mathematician’s demise are still unknown, and unfortunately, this is likely to stand. What is certain is that Alan Turing’s disappearance was the macabre conclusion of the last, tragic years of his life. While the early 1950s were marked by a KGB espionage affair involving supposedly homosexual English Cambridge intellectuals – The Cambridge Five – Alan Turing, whose unique skills made him work on a host of sensitive subjects, was suspected. In this tense climate, in 1952, after an intimate relationship with one of his lovers was revealed, he was then convicted under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 and forced to undergo chemical castration, which would have undesirable effects on his mental and physical health. From that date, he was also excluded from major scientific projects. Yet, as Copeland had pointed out in support of his thesis, Alan Turing seemed to be gradually getting back on his feet. His treatment had been discontinued about a year before his death and he was showing positive signs of health, returning to work.
Unfortunately, he passed away a few months later. In disgrace and some loneliness, like so many great geniuses before him in the past. His legacy, however, lives on. And the digital wave he fathered still sweeps the world today, taking everything in its path.
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