Alan Turing and Christopher Morcom. Art by Keith Hegley from The Who, the What, and the When, an illustrated celebration of the little-known inspirations behind geniuses.
“The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
“The void horrifies: so we are all immortal,” Simone de Beauvoir scoffed at the religious escapism of immortality in explaining why she is an atheist, adding: “Faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly.” But there exists a certain orientation of spirit that is both unreligious and lucid in contemplating mortality. Einstein touched on it in his beautiful letter to the Queen of Belgium, in which he wrote: “There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions.”And yet he conceded that such an orientation toward mortality is reserved for those “who have been privileged to accomplish in full measure their task in life.”
To make sense of the untimely loss of a young and unrealized life is a wholly different matter, one which haunted computing pioneer Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954).
Turing’s decryption of Nazi communication code is estimated to have shortened WWII by two to four years, consequently saving anywhere between 14 and 21 million lives. But despite his wartime heroism, Turing was driven to suicide after being chemically castrated by the U.K. government for being homosexual. More than half a century after his disquieting death, Queen Elizabeth II issued royal pardon — a formal posthumous apology that somehow only amplifies the tragedy of Turing’s life and death.
Tragedy had been with Turing from a young age. At fifteen, while attending the Sherborne School, he fell deeply in love with a classmate named Christopher Morcom. For the awkward and ostracized young Alan, who was bullied so severely that a group of boys once trapped him under the floorboards of a dorm dayroom and kept him there until he nearly suffocated, Christopher was everything he was not — dashing, polished, well versed in both science and art, and aglow with winsome charisma. Alan’s love was profound and pure and unrequited in the dimensions he most longed for, but Christopher did take to him with great warmth and became his most beloved, in fact his only, friend. They spent long nights discussing science and philosophy, trading astronomical acumen, and speculating about the laws of physics.
When Christopher died of bovine tuberculosis in 1930 — a disease he had contracted from infected milk, for which there was no common vaccine until after WWII — Alan fell to pieces. He was able to collect himself only through work, by burrowing so deep into the underbelly of mathematics that he emerged almost on the other side, where science and metaphysics meet. Sorrow had taken him on a crusade to make sense of reality, of this senseless ruin, and he spared no modality of thought. Most of all, he wanted to understand how he could remain so attached to someone who no longer existed materially but who felt so overwhelmingly alive in his spirit.
All the while, young Turing remained in touch with Christopher’s mother, who had taken a sympathetic liking to her son’s awkward friend. After Christopher’s death, he visited the Morcoms at their country home, Clock House, and corresponded with Mrs. Morcom about the grief they shared, about the perplexity of how a nonentity — for Christopher had ceased to exist in physical terms — could color each of their worlds so completely.
That sorrowful puzzlement is what Turing explored in a series of letters to Christopher’s mother, originally included in his first serious biography and brought to new life in astrophysicist Janna Levin’s exquisite novel A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines (public library) — a masterwork of fiction that swirls philosophical poetics around the facts of Turing’s life…