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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Alan Turing: Persecuted science pioneer

As one of the seminal figures in mid-20th century British science, Alan Turing bore many different titles. Mathematician, computer scientist, biologist, cryptanalyst. Born in 1912, Turing was a pioneer of the field that would become computer science, laying the theoretical groundwork for the development of all sorts of contemporary computing devices, while also conducting important research into the fields of mathematics and mathematical biology. Finally, his work as a “cryptanalyst,” or codebreaker, for Britain’s Government Code and Cypher School during World War II was instrumental in breaking the German navy’s Enigma code, an event that historians have argued hastened the end of the war.

“I think Turing is one of the most important people of the last century, and part of what drew me to his story is that most people have never heard of him. When you look at his contribution to computer science as sort of the founder of computer science and the founder of artificial intelligence, and then when you consider his really important role as a codebreaker during World War II, he’s someone that everyone should know about,” said Patrick Sammon, the executive producer and creator of “Codebreaker,” a 2011 “drama-documentary” about Turing’s life, in a phone interview with the S&B.

Sammon will be on campus tonight, as the SGA Films Committee is hosting a showing of “Codebreaker” at 7 p.m. in Harris Cinema. Sammon will be in attendance at the screening and will hold a Q&A session after the film has ended.

Tonight’s screening of “Codebreaker” has been a long time in the making. Ed Senn ’79, the event’s sponsor, originally saw the film some time ago at an opening in his hometown of Washington D.C. After he heard Sammon, a friend of his, was showing the film at colleges and universities around the country, Senn approached Grinnell about organizing a screening on campus.

“It’s a very powerful film and when I saw it, I immediately thought of Grinnell. I think everyone that’s interested in history and injustice should know this story,” Senn said in a phone interview with the S&B. “The work that Patrick did to bring this to light I think is important for everyone to understand Turing’s place in history.”

Sadly, Turing’s service of country and extensive contributions to science mattered less than his sexuality, at least in the eyes of the British judicial system, as he was convicted in 1952 of “gross indecency,” after admitting to authorities that he had engaged in a homosexual relationship. For this offense, he was sentenced to “chemical castration”—treatment with estrogen, the female sex hormone, that rendered him sexually impotent and physically feminized—and harassed by police, ultimately driving him to commit suicide in 1954, at the age of 41.

As what he called an “almost-math major,” but also as a gay man, Senn said he found Turing’s story meaningful on both an intellectual and a personal level.

“I think that it’s important for Grinnell students and faculty to know his story,” Senn said. “He’s a hero that should be acknowledged and Grinnell has a great history of acknowledging heroes in the social justice movement.”

Senn provided the funds to bring Sammon to Grinnell for the event.

The film itself blends genres, employing both conventional documentary techniques, like interview and voiceover, and scripted dramatizations involving professional actors. It features interviews with professional sources like Turing’s biographer, the American writer David Leavitt, as well as with members of Turing’s family, balancing his professional achievements with his tragic personal story. The dramatized portions take the form of a series of conversations that occurred between Turing and his psychiatrist Franz Greenbaum during the last 18 months of his life.

While Senn immediately thought of Grinnell’s historic commitment to social justice after seeing the film, Sammon is actually excited about a different connection to the College.

“I’m especially looking forward to screening the film at Grinnell College because it had an important role in the history of the Silicon Valley, with one of its [alumni], Robert Noyce, who was so important in the early breakthroughs in the modern computer,” Sammon said. “I really feel like Turing’s work was foundational in terms of the theoretical nature of computers. But, to have someone from Grinnell who sort of turned those theories into the practice and the world we see today … I think it sort of ties together the history of our modern computer in a really interesting way.

The event is something of a departure from the norm for the Films Committee, which has shown mostly non-documentary feature films so far this semester. Films Chair Victor Kyerematen ’14 hopes Sammon’s presence will present a unique educational opportunity.

“This event is different because we are bringing the producer, and I think students who come to this movie, after watching it, will be able to get a better sense of what went into the film and the processes that go into [the] general production and making and distribution of a film,” Kyerematen said.

Kyerematen expressed interest in continuing to promote more interactive SGA Films events like this one, urging anyone with ideas of films or filmmakers to bring to campus to get in contact with him and involved on the Films Committee. The Film Committee meets Sundays at 8 p.m.

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