Sunflowers, Science and Sexual Politics

These are my Alan Turing Sunflowers. To be more precise, they’re the sunflowers I’ve planted as part of an international science experiment to mark the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth.

Alan Turing was a scientist with a brilliant mind. He’s generally credited with breaking the German’s secret ‘Enigma Code’ during World War Two – an act that was pivotal in turning the tide in our favour.

He’s also held to be one of the forefathers of modern computing, having worked out a lot of the underlying theory in his lifetime.

The current sunflower experiment is an attempt to finish off another piece of work he did – looking for mathematical patterns in nature. One particular pattern he was looking at was the Fibonacci Sequence, which is explained (more or less!) in this clip.

Initiated in March by Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, ‘Turing’s Sunflowers‘ aimed to persuade members of the public to grow a total of 3,000 sunflowers. It may have seemed like a big ask at the time but the response has been incredible. So much so that they’ve currently got pledges to grow nearly three times that number across 13 different countries!

And somewhere in that 8958 are the five that I’m growing too.

I have to admit my commitment to this experiment isn’t purely scientific. Alan Turing’s genius is widely acknowledged – but he was also gay and subject to intense persecution from the government because of it. So much so that he ended up taking his own life in 1954.

Despite his pivotal role in breaking the Enigma Code during the Second World War he was barred from any post-war security work simply because he was gay. Seeking a more supportive culture he made contact with gay organisations in Norway and had a couple of holidays there. But the British government hounded him throughout this period and left him in no doubt that his movements and his friends were being watched.

In reality, Turing’s ‘real’ crime was being unapologetic. He knew then, as so many of us know now, that there was nothing intrinsically sick or evil about being gay and refused to pander to those who would have us believe otherwise. But he was up against the dark forces of institutional power.

On one occasion he discovered that a young man he had slept with had subsequently robbed him. In consequence he did what all victims of crime are encouraged to do – he called the police. When he explained what had happened the police duly arrested him for his ‘crime’!

When his case came to court the judge decided to be ‘lenient’ because of his accomplishments during the war. ‘Being lenient’ meant giving him an alternative to a jail sentence – chemical castration, which is what Turing reluctantly agreed to.

In the end, the combination of this hideous emasculation and the continuing persecution finally got to him and he committed suicide in 1954, two weeks before his 42nd birthday.

And so, this is why I’m growing Alan Turing’s Sunflowers; as a memorial to a man who was ahead of his time in a social as well as scientific context. A man who was brave enough to be himself in spite of social disapproval and institutional persecution. And a man to whom the world owes so much.

In 2009 Prime Minster Gordon Brown issued a public apology for the treatment Turing received. In 2012 Prime Minister David Cameron announced that it wasn’t possible to issue a formal pardon for his ‘crimes’. This is clearly nonsense and merely highlights this government’s superficial commitment to gay rights.

The campaign for a full pardon continues and the petition can be signed here. There’s also a campaign to have him featured on the new ten pound note. The petition for this can be signed here.

And my own personal campaign is to grow sunflowers every year as a mark of respect and remembrance of a great man who was unafraid to show his love of other men. It would be great if others joined me…and even better if the sunflower becomes permanently associated with Alan Turing.

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5 Responses to Sunflowers, Science and Sexual Politics

  1. Emily Heath says:

    I read a book about Bletchley Park recently. What happened to Alan Turing was so sad. I don’t have any suitable space to grow sunflowers at the moment, but will try to remember this when I one day get a garden of my own.

  2. Nicola Terry says:

    I totally agree that the treatment Alan Turing received was barbaric and a blot on our national reputation – along with all the other people similarly treated. I have signed both petitions, Colin.

  3. Mary Lu Redden says:

    I had the great pleasure of chatting several times last week with Dr. Erinma Ochu about the Turing Sunflower project. We were both at a conference on Community- University engagement. I love this sunflower project and am encouraging my niece, who teaches grade 4 students in Toronto to attempt a small scale version with her class as a way of helping kids get hooked on math.

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