“A Great science fiction detective story”
– Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine
Days to Centenary: 131
No legalities today, no contentiousness, no discord. It’s not the day for it.
It was on this almost-Valentine’s-Day in 1930 that a boy named Christopher Morcom died of bovine tuberculosis, an illness he had contracted years earlier when he drank tainted milk.
In itself his death was as sad and as ordinary as any premature death — tragic and unremarkable at the same time. Every single day this world has in it uncounted things that are gut-wrenching for those whose hearts are near to the event, but that pass barely noticed for those who are a little further away from them.
For our purposes, in the context of this blog, Chris Morcom’s death is significant because Alan Turing was very near indeed. Chris Morcom was Alan Turing’s first love.
To understand the place Morcom it held in Turing’s life, read Andrew Hodges‘ Alan Turing: The Enigma, the definitive biography. For the moment, I’ll rely on a brief summary from the NNDB.com entry on Turing to set out the basic facts for those who don’t already know them.
What is essential to understand is that Chris Morcom’s death not only devastated Turing emotionally, it also ignited him intellectually, as he tried in his grief to make sense of the fact that a mind that had been so present, so active, and so loved just the day before was apparently gone on this day, February 13, 1930.
In 1928 Turing met and became close friends with new classmate Christopher Morcom. The two shared countless impassioned conversations about science and mathematics, often passing notes back in forth in class to share commentary on various puzzles and postulates in math or physics. Christopher even invited Alan home to meet his mother, Mrs. Morcom, who was an artist. Soon a deep attachment bloomed between the boys, and Alan developed a purportedly unspoken crush.
But in February of 1930 Christopher died unexpectedly of bovine tuberculosis, an illness which he had contracted years earlier from tainted milk. Deeply affected by the loss, Alan became obsessed with unraveling the nature of consciousness, its structure and its origins. As his conversations with Mrs. Morcom reveal, he longed to understand what had become of Christopher, of that essential aspect of him: mind. Of course once a question piqued Alan’s interest, he focused with singular obsession. And any field of knowledge that might bear relevance had to be explored, its concepts recombined in ways totally his own. Thus he immersed himself in related works of biology, philosophy, metaphysics, and even mathematical logic and quantum mechanics. And because he so enjoyed tinkering with and redesigning various gizmos and mechanical parts, it was natural to him to think about the mind as an intelligent machine, one whose processes could be modeled and predicted with mathematical logic.
Turing had suddenly lost his Christian faith, becoming an atheist, and becoming convinced that the workings of the human brain, like other phenomena, must be materialistic, a line of thought that led directly into the heart of his later work into how thought-like processes might be embodied in material structures other than the human brain.
There is a direct and somewhat causal link, then, between point A (Turing’s love for Chris Morcom and Morcom’s death) and point B (Turing’s interest in and groundbreaking work on the idea that would eventually be embodied as the computer and the area of thought that would ultimately become the discipline of artificial intelligence).
So this year, as we mark the 100th birthday of Alan Turing, today seems like an appropriate day to acknowledge the contribution, however indirect, that Christopher Morcom made to Turing’s legacy.
There’s a scene in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral when a character played by John Hannah reads the poem Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden at the funeral of his gay lover. Some people like the movie and some people don’t, and some people who love the poem regret it’s involvment in the movie because they believe it should be left simply to be itself, the poem as written.
Whatever else one wants to say about it, two things are true.
First, John Hannah’s performance as the grief-stricken Matthew is extremely well done. (If you want to judge for yourself you can find it here.)
Second, and more importantly, the poem remains the poem, exactly as Auden wrote it. It’s an eloquent expression of the grief and loss that we feel when someone we love dies and as such it’s appropriate here. I can only be grateful that Turing’s grief ended up fueling such profound thought and such incredible contributions to the world.
Here’s the poem:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
How true that last line must have seemed to Turing on the day that Chris Morcom died. How fortunate for all of us that it turned out not to be so. For all the difficulties that his last years held, Turing’s life certainly came to much good, for him and for all of us.