10,000 People Sign Petition to Honor Alan Turing by Putting Him on the £10 Note

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Just last month the government there refused to pardon him for the crime of "moral turpitude," that is, that he was gay.

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Steve Parker/Flickr

Alan Turing -- brilliant mathematician and pioneer of computer science -- was good to England, but England was not good to Alan Turing. Born 100 years ago this year, Turing invented the machine that cracked the German navy's Enigma code, hastening the allied victory in World War II.

But not long after his code-breaking triumph, in January of 1952, England arrested and convicted Turing for "acts of gross indecency between adult men." As punishment, England gave him the choice between imprisonment and estrogen treatments, intended to "cure" his homosexuality, and he chose the latter. The hormones made him impotent and caused him to grow breasts. Even after the treatments ended, he remained depressed. He despaired of the damage to his career caused by the conviction. On June 7, 1954, he committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide.

In 2009 Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a formal apology for the "appalling" treatment he had faced. But the government denied him a pardon for his conviction, explaining:

It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd, particularly... given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times.

But in lieu of overturning a correct-but-not-just conviction, the British government is taking other small steps, most notably the release of a Turing-themed stamp. Now, an e-petition is circulating requesting that England honor him by placing him on the next £10 note. In less than a week the petition has garnered more than 10,000 signatures. E-petitions that gain 100,000 signatures in a year are eligible for debate in the House of Commons -- so, while an e-petition is not exactly binding (not even close), the request's quick pick-up is itself a little bit of affirmation for Turing's life and work, and a sign of society's progress since his time. And, it's a lovely, full-circle sort of thing to see the tools of modern computing -- Turing's legacy -- employed for this effort on his behalf.

If selected, Turing will replace Charles Darwin, who currently appears on the note. (Not to fret, Darwin-lovers, this is not an effort to dethrone the great man. England is phasing out all notes from "Series E," the series on which Darwin appears and replacing them gradually with a fresh crop of British heroes in "Series F.") Banknotes around the world tend to honor statesmen and women, but Turing would most definitely not be alone as a scientist: Scotland honors Lord Kelvin and Alexander Fleming (discoverer of penicillin), Serbia has Nikola Tesla on its 100-dinar note, Niels Bohr appears on the Danish krone, to name a few.

There is perhaps no better way to end this post (or any post, for that matter) than by sharing this recent RadioLab Short on Turing's life and legacy, featuring wonderful interviews with Janna Levin, David Leavitt, and James Gleick. Enjoy.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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