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Thursday, August 30, 2012

New play, "Pink Milk," examines the life of Alan Turing

Last year, Alex Young, then a junior at Northwestern University studying creative writing, began working on a poetry project in response to incidents of bullying and suicide plaguing gay teenagers and gaining increasing national attention.

Young said he started to research prominent gay figures from the 1950s, especially those who had faced some form of abuse or personal tragedy. In the process, he discovered Alan Turing, the British mathematician and scientist widely considered one of the founders of computer science, as well as a visionary in the field of artificial intelligence. Setting aside his poems, Young started working on his first full-length play, one inspired by Turing’s life. The result, “Pink Milk,” just finished a five-show run at this year’s New York International Fringe Festival, and will be coming to the Chicago Fringe Festival in September.

 “Gay people have been going through stuff like this forever,” Young said when parsing out his play’s multiple messages the day before its New York debut. He said he aimed to show how “a man that was born in 1912 was also experiencing [persecution] in a very similar way to how people are experiencing that now.”

Turing’s tale is especially striking. Already established in academia by the 1930s, he was drafted into the war effort by the British government in 1939. Among his other accomplishments, he led the construction of an early computer that broke encrypted German communications, a major boon to the Allied cause. In 1945, Turing received the Order of the British Empire from King George VI in honor of his work.

Nine years later he was dead, killed by cyanide poisoning at the age of 41. It is believed Turing took his own life, injecting an apple with the chemical and then eating it.

In between those years, he was hounded by the same British government he helped to save. His crime was homosexuality, which he revealed to police investigating a robbery at his home in 1952. Convicted of “gross indecency,” a violation under a British law, dating from the late 19th century, he was offered a choice: prison, or estrogen injections – the equivalent of chemical castration. He chose the latter, and suffered for two years from the side effects before his death. The law Turing had broken was repealed in 1967.

Young’s play, a dance and music-infused abstract work in the “magical realism” style, faces the likely suicide head on. But the author wanted to push beyond it as well. In a series of emotive, abstract scenes, the work explores Turing’s relationship with his parents, with the British authorities, with his own creativity, and with the great unrealized love of his life. Throughout the play, Turing engages with anthropomorphized objects, a technique Young said lets the audience into the character’s head by permitting him “to be in a completely vulnerable place.”

“I think for me, what I want the play to do is to be able to see that the tiniest moments were beautiful and important, and those are the facts we should be focusing on as opposed to the suicide,” Young said. “I think a lot of time people are defined by their suicide once it happens, and that’s not necessarily what they should be defined by.”

The beautiful moments of Turing’s life were many. Today, four universities, including three in Britain, feature buildings named after him. In 2009, then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown publicly apologized for Turing’s treatment, which he labeled both “utterly unfair” and “horrifying.” 2012, the 100-year-anniversary of Turing’s birth, has seen numerous celebrations of his life coordinated by the Turing Centenary Advisory Committee, or TCAC, a group of dozens of scientists from around the world working together to honor his legacy.

Praise of Turing now flows effusively, especially from those working in the fields he helped to create and shape.

“To me personally, you’d be hard pressed to find a scientist who contributed more,” said Doug Downey, a professor of computer science at Northwestern University who works to improve the ability of computers to process language.

Carl Mummert, an assistant professor of mathematics at Marshall University, agreed. “I think that people have an enormous amount of respect for Turing.” Mummert explained that Turing was the first scientist to prove that mathematical processes could be automated, an idea that was “enormously compelling in terms of helping to set the direction of the field, helping to convince people that there was really something to it.”

Hector Zenil, a professor of computer science at the University of Sheffield in Britain, described Turing as “one of my earliest inspirations.”

“We humans tend to make heroes of some people,” he said, “and if there is one individual who deserves that honour in the digital age, it is Alan Turing.”

Downey, Mummert, and Zenil are all members of the TCAC.

“His life story is extremely inspiring,” Downey said. “It also, I think, kind of instills a sense of responsibility in scientists today to take advantage of the trails that people like Turing blazed, and didn’t necessarily get to reap the rewards of.”

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