Alan Turing and the bullying of Britain’s geeks

[Republished from The Guardian’s The Notherner Blog]

Celebrations of Alan Turing’s life and work reach a peak this week with the centenary of his birth. The chair of the project, Professor S.Barry Cooper, continues his series for the Guardian Northerner with insights on the torment which the bright but unusual can still suffer at school.

John Turing talks in the family’s reminscences about his younger brother Alan, recalling how the future computer genius was noted for:

bad reports, slovenly habits and unconventional behaviour

The ‘neurotypical’ John says that neither he nor his parents “had the faintest idea that this tiresome, eccentric and obstinate small boy was a budding genius.”

It is still very common for geekishly irritating little boys and girls to suffer misunderstanding and routine bullying at school. Nowadays Alan would probably have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

Later, according to brother John:

Alan was first class at beating the system. He refused to work at anything except his precious maths and science, but he had an incredible aptitude for examinations, aided by last minute swotting.

As Turing’s centenary on Saturday 23 June approaches, all over the world people are celebrating the centenary of this odd and strangelyinspiring British genius: the man who imagined the stored program computer before it was built, and who helped revolutionise our world with his thinking about the computer’s capabilities.

His visionary ambition led him to say in 1944: “I am building a brain.” Our continuing adventure with robots and artificial intelligence started with Turing.

But, as we honour the legacy of this great and enigmatic scientist, let’s spare a thought for today’s young geeks. There are so many schoolkids out there on the autistic/aspergers spectrum who could benefit from knowing more about Turing and his iconic achievements. I was invited to talk about Turing’s ideas to an audience of 300 high-school students in Beijing in May. It was an inspiring and moving experience.

“Will there be robots?” asked one bright spark before I started (yes, there were). Afterwards, I spotted one small lad in the cluster of questioners around me, and asked “how old are you?” When he replied “13”, I couldn’t help commenting: “But you can’t have understood much.” He looked fiercely serious and retorted “I understood everything!!”. Maybe another little Turing in the making, I thought, somewhat abashed.

Throughout his adult life, Alan Turing was befriended and protected by Professor Max Newman and his family. An Italian correspondent reminded me of this description of Alan, after his tragic death in Manchester, by Newman’s wife Lyn:

He was a strange man, who never felt at ease in any place. His efforts, mostly occasional indeed, to look like he felt a part of the middle upper class circles which he naturally belonged to, were clumsy. He randomly adopted some conventions of his class, but rejected with no regret and hesitation most of their habits and ideas. And unfortunately the academic world’s customs, which could have sheltered him, disconcerted and deeply bored him.

Lyn is remembering how much our country owed Turing, his role at Bletchley Park during the war, and how his last two years of life were made a misery by the British state which he had served so well. A while back I came on a response to Turing being “under-appreciated in his own time”. It was beautifully expressed (I Tweeted it and it is now all over the web):

Wow! ‘Under-appreciated’ seems to be quite a euphemism for somebody bullied to death

In 2002, an American study found that 94% of school students with Asperger’s syndrome faced torment from their peers and commented:

Some of their behaviors and characteristics that others see as ‘different’ make these children easy targets for frequent and severe bullying.Having Asperger’s Syndrome means these children are part of a vulnerable population and are easy targets.

There are bits from Turing’s school reports which hint at his own early trials:

Slightly less dirty & untidy in his habits: & rather more conscious of a duty to mend his ways. He has his own furrow to plough, & may not meet with general sympathy: he seems cheerful, though I’m not always certain he really is so. (from 1926)


His ways sometimes tempt persecution: though I don’t think he is unhappy. Undeniably he is not a ‘normal’ boy: not the worse for that, but probably less happy. (from 1927)

But let’s face it – when it comes down to it, one of Britain’s best exports is geekery. One of the greatest is Isaac Newton. And recently we celebrated Charles Darwin. This year it is Alan Turing.

That last link – to Aspies for Freedom – is a very thought-provoking piece. It puts the case for people like Turing – and Darwin and Newton – being valued for their differences: “I am concerned that the 2012 celebrations could possibly also depict autism/AS in a negative and pitiful manner” posted one female Australian Aspie.

Yes – ‘thinking different’ can be far from a disability. Today’s computer-dominated world demands a leavening of creative geeky innovators. On June 5 the sober-minded Economist put it this way:

Those square pegs may not have an easy time in school. They may be mocked by jocks and ignored at parties. But these days no serious organisation can prosper without them. As Kiran Malhotra, a Silicon Valley networker, puts it: “It’s actually cool to be a geek.”

So this week, all over the world, we will be seeing celebrations of the glories of geekery a la Turing. My young friend in Beijing will be remembering our Alan, and drawing strength for the future from his vision of intelligent machines. It’s great to see this eccentric genius finally getting the recognition he deserves. With celebrations going on from Manchester to Manhattan, from Brazil to Bangalore, and from Cambridge to Korea, let’s celebrate the achievements of our eccentric geniuses!

You can see a comprehensive listing of Alan Turing commemorative events here.The ePetition for a full pardon of Turing by the UK government – more than 34,000 signatures to date – is here. And a second ePetition for an overdue London commemoration of Turing on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth is here. The Turing Centenary Year Tweets are here.

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