Alan Turing on the £50 note is a triumph for British science – and for equality | Emily Grossman
16 July 2019, 15:09
Over Christmas, I had the unusual delight of reading short biographies of 989 dead scientists. As a member of the Bank of England’s banknote character advisory committee, I was sifting through potential nominees to be included on the new £50 note: the sheer volume of UK scientists, put forward by more than 225,000 members of the public, reflected the enormous contribution our small island has made to international scientific progress over the past few centuries.
The advisory committee finally arrived at a list of 12, which we duly presented to the bank’s governor, Mark Carney. All were outstanding scientists in their own right, universally agreed to have made a significant and enduring contribution not just to the world of science, but to society as a whole. They ranged from Stephen Hawking and Rosalind Franklin to Dorothy Hodgkin and Srivanasa Ramanujan. It was a list to challenge the outdated stereotype of the socially awkward old white man, working diligently alone in his laboratory. A damaging trope that still prevents many young people today from seeing a place for themselves in science.
One name stood out in particular to be honoured on the £50 note: Alan Turing. His contribution to science is clear: he was the father of computer science, a significant influence on the modern field of artificial intelligence and most importantly, his work at Bletchley Park during the second world war led a team of code-breakers to crack the German Enigma code.
But Turing’s importance goes beyond science. Shortly after the war, he was prosecuted by the British government for “gross indecency” due to his relationship with another man. He chose to undergo a year of chemical castration rather than face a prison sentence, but he died two years later, aged 41. The inquest found that his death from cyanide poisoning had been suicide. In 2009 Gordon Brown issued Turing an apology on behalf of the government – and in 2013 the Queen officially pardoned him. This may have seemed too little, too late, but such public acknowledgment of his mistreatment by the state helped pave the way for the subsequent government pardoning of nearly 50,000 homosexual men who had been historically cautioned or convicted for homosexual acts.
Turing’s legacy contributes to ever-greater acceptance of sexual differences, and by celebrating him the UK might seem to be progressing in this matter – but a recent national survey found that two-thirds of the LGBT community in the UK are still afraid to hold hands in public for fear of negative reactions, and four in 10 have experienced some form of hate incident. Although I have been a lifelong ally of the LGBT community, I had never experienced this directly myself. That was until I recently entered into a relationship with a non-binary partner, assigned female at birth. While determined to walk down the street with pride, we have nonetheless been subject to negative comments and disapproving looks, and I admit that I feel nervous when we’re out together at night.
There are still 72 countries in which same-sex relations are illegal (36 of which are Commonwealth members) and 11 countries in which homosexuality is punishable by death. The honouring of Turing sends a powerful message: this is a nation that believes that all people should be treated equally and with respect – a nation in which Alan Turing should be celebrated for the important contributions he has made to the world.
• Dr Emily Grossman is a science author, public speaker and TV personality. She is an expert in molecular biology and genetics