Good physics, bad chemistry – An Irishman’s Diary about Alan Turing’s Tipperary connections, and the dangers of marrying scientists

The Borrisokane connection

Computer scientist and mathematician Alan Turing

Computer scientist and mathematician Alan Turing

 

It’s not true, as a reader has suggested it might be, that the great computer scientist Alan Turing, about whom I wrote recently (January 9ah) was the inspiration for the Apple logo.

It should be true, for poignant reasons we’ll return to later. It just isn’t, sadly. But what is a fact, as the reader also pointed out, is that Turing’s mother – Ethel Stoney – was Irish, and that her side of the family tree had so many illustrious scientists, architects, and engineers in it as to make his genius no surprise.

The Stoneys were big-house people, among the most prominent landlords of North Tipperary for centuries. But they were also empire builders. So although the marriage of Ethel to Julius Turing (Alan’s father) happened in Dublin, in 1907, it was probably made in India.

Julius was a civil servant in Madras. And as the marriage announcement in The Irish Times found space to mention, Ethel’s father had constructed the “Madras Railway”. (The announcement also seemed to imply, startlingly, that he was a “C.I.E.” man, but this must have meant “Civil and Industrial Engineer”, or something, not the company that adorned Irish railways in the post-imperial age.)

Whether the family’s greatness was appreciated back in Tipperary, by the tillers of the Stoneys’ grey soil, is another matter. My correspondent tells me that their local seat, Arran Hill House near Borrisokane, used to have a big stone step at the door, the significance of which was that “your money (rent) was welcome beyond it, but not yourself, thanks all the same”.

Well, sic transit gloria mundi. Arran Hill House fell into dereliction over the decades, to the point where nobody crossed the step any more. And today the stone is serving a different purpose, as a bench in Borrisokane’s town park.

As I mentioned last week, Turing is the hero of The Imitation Game, currently in cinemas, although not enough of a hero for some. The film has been criticised both for air-brushing his sex life and for a fictional subplot in which he hid the existence of a spy rather than have his homosexuality exposed. But it has also angered Turing’s admirers for its portrayal of him as an Asperger syndrome cliche – a man brilliant in maths and logic, but incapable of warmth. This wasn’t true either, they say.

There’s an interesting contrast here with another film now showing, The Theory of Everything. That too is about a brilliant scientist, Stephen Hawking. And I haven’t seen it yet, but its hagiographical approach has earned a severe telling-off in the latest issue of the Spectator.

The witness for the prosecution is Hawking’s first wife, Jane Wilde, whose angry memoir was the prism through which the magazine’s writer judged the film. This is fairer than it sounds, because Hawking’s own memoir was so elliptical about personal matters that the film-makers had to depend on Wilde’s book, but then left out the parts (a lot of them) that reflected badly on the hero.

If it’s any consolation to Ms Wilde, she is far from alone in being a “physics widow”, as the Spectator headline put it. Indeed, even the most famous physicist of all left one behind.

Mileva Maric, the first Mrs Albert Einstein, actually named “physics” as the co-respondent in their divorce proceedings, although there was also another woman involved, so chemistry must have been suspected as well.

Getting back to Turing, chemistry’s supposed role in human relationships had a tragic twist in his case. Despite helping to shorten the second World War, saving countless lives, he may himself have been hounded to an early grave nine years later.

Convicted of homosexual acts, he was given the choice between prison and chemical castration and chose the latter. Soon afterwards he died from cyanide poisoning.

This is generally considered suicide (the investigation was so inadequate as to leave the question moot) with the half-eaten apple found beside him presumed to have been the agent of death, à la Snow White.

And that in turn became the basis for a myth, beautiful in its own way, that the Apple logo, with its famous bite, was a tribute to the father of computing. Which, as I said earlier, really should be true.

Alas, the man responsible admitted some years ago that he hadn’t heard the Turing story when he drew the design. His thinking was much more prosaic. He put the bite in for reasons of scale, only – so that when reduced to very small sizes, the apple would still look like an apple and not, for example, a plum.

@FrankmcnallyIT