Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Death of Turing

I'm feeling a little uninspired at the moment, so today I turned once again to the 'The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics', in which I found this extract from Andrew Hodges' biography of Alan Turing (Alan Turing: The Enigma):

Alan Turing's death came as a shock to those who knew him. It fell into no clear sequence of events. Nothing was explicit - there was no warning, no note of explanation. It seemed an isolated act of self-annihilation. That he was an unhappy, tense person; that he was consulting a psychiatrist and had suffered a blow that would have felled many people - all this was clear. But the trial was two years in the past, the hormone treatment had ended a year before, and he seemed to have risen above it all. There was no simple connection in the minds of those who had seen him in the previous two years. On the contrary, his reaction had been so different from the wilting, disgraced, fearful, hopeless figure expected by fiction and drama, that those who had seen it could hardly believe that he was dead. He was simply "not the type" for suicide. But those who resisted a stereotyped association of the trial in 1952 with the death in 1954 perhaps forgot that suicide did not have to be interpreted in terms of weakness or shame. As Alan had quoted Oscar Wilde in 1941, it could be the brave man that did it with a sword.

The inquest, on 10 June, established that it was suicide. The evidence was perfunctory, not for any irregular reason, but because it was so transparently clear a case. He had been found lying neatly in his bed by Mrs. C- when she came in at five o'clock on Tuesday 8 June (She would normally have been in on the Monday, but it was the Whitsun bank holiday, and she had had a day off.) There was froth round his mouth, and the pathologist who did the post-mortem that evening easily identified the cause of death as cyanide poisoning, and put the time of death as on the Monday night. In the house was a jar of potassium cyanide, and also a jam jar of a cyanide solution. By the side of his bed was half an apple, out of which several bites had been taken. They did not analyse the apple, and so it was never properly established that, as seemed perfectly obvious, the apple had been dipped in the cyanide...

Anyone arguing that it was an accident would have had to admit that it was certainly one of suicidal folly. Alan Turing himself would have been fascinated by the difficulty in drawing a line between accident and suicide, a line defined only by a conception of free will. Interested as he was by the idea of attaching a random element into a computer, a "roulette wheel", to give it the appearance of freedom, there might conceivably have been some Russian roulette aspect to his end. But even if this were so, his body was not one of a man fighting for his life against the suffocation induced by cyanide poisoning. It was that of one resigned to death.

Like Snow White, he ate a poisoned apple, dipped in the witches' brew. But what were the ingredients of the brew? What would a less artificial inquest have made of his last years. It would depend upon the level of description, "not the will of man as such but our presentation of it." To ask what caused his death is like asking what caused the First World War: a pistol shot, the railway timetables, the armament race, or the logic of nationalism could all be held accountable. At one level the atoms were simply moving according to physical law; at other levels there was mystery; at another, a kind of inevitability...