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June 2012



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Alan Turing and bullying

A geek – and a genius. Alan Turing’s reading matter marked him out at school and university. Cartoon courtesy of the Turing Centenary Year

S.Barry Cooper

Wednesday 20 June 2012 11.26 EDT

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 strangely inspiring 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):

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.

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