Science and Emotion

Commuting days until retirement: 507

heretics-coverFollowing my comments 3 posts ago, my reading on the train over the last week has been The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, by Will Storr. Despite booming bishops and other distractions, I found it intensely readable, and I think it pretty much fulfilled my expectations.

The subtitle about ‘the Enemies of Science’ is perhaps a little misleading: this is not primarily an exercise in bashing such people – you’ll find plenty of other books that do that, and any number of internet forums (and of course I had a go at it myself, in the post I mentioned). It’s an attempt to understand them, and to investigate why they believe what they do. Storr does not treat the enemies of science as being necessarily his personal enemies, and it emerges at the same time that the friends of science are not always particularly – well, friendly.

I was going to say that it’s a strength of the book that he maintains this approach without compromising his own adherence to rationality, but that’s not strictly true. Because another strength is that he doesn’t attempt to adopt a wholly godlike, objective view. Rather, he presents himself, warts and all, as a creature like the rest of us, who has had to fight his own emotional demons in order to arrive at some sort of objectivity. And he does admit to experiencing a kind of bewitchment when talking to people with far-out beliefs. ‘They are magic-makers. And, beneath all that a private undercurrent: I feel a kind of kinship with them. I am drawn to the wrong.’

It’s a subtle approach, and a difficult path to tread, which invites misunderstanding. And one critic who I believe misunderstands is Mark Henderson in the Guardian who, while admiring aspects of Storr’s work, finds the book ‘disappointing and infuriating….  He is like the child who still wants to believe in Father Christmas, but who is just old enough to know better. Life would be more magical, more fun, if the story were true.’  Well here I think Henderson is unwittingly stating the central thesis of Storr’s book: that as humans we are above all myth makers – we have a need to see ourselves as a hero of our own preferred narrative.

This idea appeals to me in particular because it chimes in with ideas that I have come across in an evening course I am currently following in the philosophy of emotion. Writers on emotion quite naturally classify emotion into positive (happiness, love, hope, excitement) and negative (sadness, hatred, anger, fear, etc). The naive assumption is that we welcome the former and avoid the latter if we can. But of course the reality is far more nuanced, and more interesting than that. In the first place is the need of many to pursue dangerous and frightening pursuits, and then of course the undoubted delights of sado-masochism. But much closer to home is the fact that we flock to horror films and emotionally harrowing dramas – we love to be vicariously frightened or distressed. Narrative is our stock in trade, and (as the increasingly popular creative writing courses preach) unless there’s plenty of conflict and resolution, nobody will be interested.


We all have our own unspoken narratives about our own place in the world, and in most cases these probably cast us in a more heroic light than the accounts others might give of us. They help to maintain our emotional equilibrium, and in cases where they are nullified by external circumstances, depression, despair and even suicide may result. And of course with the internet, bloggers like me can start to inflict our own narratives on a bigger potential audience than ever (I wish). And earlier theories of the world are of course entirely myth and narrative laden, from ancient Greek culture to the Bible and the Koran. Our cultural heritage fits around our instinctive nature. (As I tap this passage into my phone on the train, the man immediately next to me is engrossed in a Bible.)  How difficult, then, for us to depart from our myths, and embrace a new, evidence based, and no longer human-centred, story of of creation.

t-rexStorr encounters one of those for whom this difficulty is too great. John Mackay is a genial, avuncular Australian (there’s plenty of footage on You Tube) who has been proselytising worldwide on behalf of the creationist story for some years. In the gospel according to Mackay, everything that seems evil about nature stems from the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Before this there were no thorns on plants, men lived happily with dinosaurs and nobody ever got eaten – all animals were vegetarians. A favourite of mine among his pronouncements is where Storr asks him why, if Tyrannosaurus Rex was a vegetarian, it had such big, sharp teeth. The answer (of course) is – water melons.

On You Tube I have just watched Mackay demonstrating from fossil evidence that there are plants and animals which haven’t evolved at all. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of Darwin: if organisms aren’t required by external forces to adapt, they won’t. But of course on Mackay’s time scale (the Earth is of course six thousand years old) there wouldn’t have been enough time for fossils to form, let alone for anything to evolve very much. The confusion here is manifold. For his part, Storr admits to having started out knowing little about evolution theory or the descent of man, and to having taken the scientific account on trust, as indeed most of us do. But his later discussions with a mainstream scientist demonstrate to him how incomparably more elegant and cogent the accepted scientific narrative is.

How objective can we be?

Henderson charges Storr with not giving sufficient recognition to the importance of the scientific method, and how it has developed as a defence of objective knowledge against humanity’s partial and capricious tendencies. But Storr seems to me to be well aware of this, and alert to those investigators whose partiality throws doubt on their conclusions. ‘Confirmation bias’ is a phrase that runs through the book: people tend to notice evidence which supports a belief they are loyal to, and neglect anything that throws doubt on it. A great example comes from a passage in the book where he joins a tour of a former Nazi concentration camp with David Irving, the extreme right wing historian who has devoted his life to a curious crusade to minimise the significance of the Holocaust, and exculpate Hitler. Storr is good on the man’s bizarre and contradictory character, as well as the motley group of admirers touring with him. At one point Irving is seeking to deny the authenticity of a gas chamber they are viewing, and triumphantly points out a handle on the inside of the open door. He doesn’t bother to look at the other side of the door, and but Storr does afterwards, and discovers a very sturdy bolt. You are led to imagine the effect of a modus operandi like this on the countless years of painstaking research that Irving has pursued.

But should we assume that the model of disinterested, peer-reviewed academic research we have developed has broken free of our myth-making tendencies? Those who are the most determined to support it are of course themselves human beings, with their own hero narratives. Storr attends a convention of ‘Skeptics’ (he uses the American spelling, as they themselves do) where beliefs in such things as creationism or belief in psychic phenomena are held up to ridicule. He brings out well the slightly obsessional, anorak-ish atmosphere of the event. It does, after all, seem a little perverse to devote very much time to debunking the beliefs of others, rather than developing one’s own. It’s as if the hero narrative ‘I don’t believe in mumbo-jumbo’ is being exploited for purposes of mutual and self-congratulation. The man who is effectively Skeptic-in-Chief, the American former magician James Randi, is later interviewed by Storr, and comes across as arrogant and overbearing, admitting to sometimes departing from truthfulness in pursuit of his aims.

If scientists, being human, are not free of personal mythology, could this work against the objectivity of the enterprise? I think it can, and has. Some examples come to mind for me. The first is Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician in the early to mid 19th century. In the days before Pasteur and the germ theory of infection, he was concerned by the number of maternal deaths in his hospital from what was called ‘puerperal fever’. This seemed to be worse in births attended by doctors, rather than midwives. In a series of well executed investigations, he linked this to doctors who had come to the maternity ward after performing post-mortems, and further established that hand-washing reduced the incidence of the disease. But the notion that doctors themselves were the cause did not meet with approval: an obvious clash with the hero narrative. Semmelweis’s findings were contemptuously rejected, and he later suffered a breakdown and died in an asylum. A similar example is the English Victorian physician John Snow, who in a famous investigation into cholera in Soho, conclusively showed it to be spread via a water-pump, in contradiction with the accepted ‘miasma’ theory of airborne infection. He further linked it to pollution of the water supply by sewage – but something so distasteful was a conclusion too far for the Victorian narratives of human pride and decency, and the miasma theory continued to hold sway.

Both these examples of course come from medicine, where conclusive and repeatable results are harder to come by, and easier to contest. So let’s go to the other extreme – mathematics. You would think that a mathematical theorem would be incontrovertible, at least on grounds of offending anyone’s personal sensibilities. But around the turn of the 20th century Georg Cantor’s work on set theory led him to results concerning the nature of infinity. The consequent attacks on him by some other mathematicians, often of the most ad hominem kind, calling him a charlatan and worse, showed that someone’s personal myths were threatened. Was it their religious beliefs, or the foundations of mathematics on which their reputations depended? I don’t know – but Cantor’s discoveries are nowadays part of mainstream mathematics.

Modern heresy

My examples are from the past, of course: I wanted to look at investigators who were derided in their time, but whose discoveries have since been vindicated. If there are any such people around today, their vindication lies in the future. And there is no shortage of heterodox doctrines, as Storr shows. Are any of them remotely plausible? One interesting case is that of Rupert Sheldrake, to whom Storr gives some space. He has an unimpeachable background of education in biology and is a former Cambridge fellow. But his theory of morphic fields – mysterious intangible influences on biological processes – put him beyond the pale as far as most mainstream scientists are concerned. Sheldrake, however, is adamant that his theory makes testable predictions, and he claims to have verified some of these using approved, objective methods. Some of them concern phenomena known to popular folk-lore: the ability to sense when you are being stared at, and animals who show correct anticipation of their absent owners returning home. I can remember when we played games with the former when I was at school – and it seemed to work. And I have read Sheldrake’s book on the latter, in which he is quite convincing.

But I have no idea whether these ideas are truly valid. Storr tells of a few cases where regular scientists have been prepared to try and repeat Sheldrake’s results with these phenomena, but most degenerate into arcane wrangling over the details of experimental method, and no clear conclusions emerge. What is clear to me is that most orthodox scientists will not even consider, publicly, such matters, since doing so is seen as career suicide. Is this lack of open-mindedness also therefore a lack of objectivity? Lewis Wolpert is quoted in Storr’s book: ‘An open mind is a very bad thing – everything falls out’, a jibe repeated by Henderson. You could retort that the trouble with a closed mind is that nothing gets in.  There is a difficult balance to find here: of course a successful scientific establishment must be on its guard against destructive incursions by gullibility and nonsense.  On the other hand, as we have seen, this becomes part of the hero narrative of its practitioners, and may be guarded so jealously that it becomes in some cases an obstacle to advances.

Sheldrake tells Storr that his theories in no way destroy or undermine established knowledge, but add to it. I think this is a little disingenuous of him. If we have missed something so fundamental, it would imply that there is something fundamentally wrong about our world-view. Well of course it would be arrogant to deny that there is anything at all wrong with our world-view (and I think there is plenty – something to return to in a later post). But Storr’s critic Henderson is surely right in holding that, in the context of a systematically developed body of knowledge, there is a greater burden of proof on the proponent of the unorthodox belief than there is on the the opponent. Nevertheless, I agree with Storr that the freedom to promote heterodox positions is essential, even if most of them are inevitably barmy. It’s not just that, as Storr asserts near the end of the book, ‘wrongness is a human right’. Occasionally – just very occasionally – it is right.

Believe it or not

Commuting days until retirement: 513

We commuters have our darker evenings, when everything goes wrong (why always evenings, when we’re on the way home, and not when we’re headed to work?) but there seem to have been remarkably few of those for a while. Until today.

Well, it wasn’t that bad – only an hour’s worth of delay. Seeing that my usual fast train was going to be very late I had made a snap decision and got on the non-delayed slow one. Mistake. We ended up stuck interminably in a station half-way, while everything, including the slow/fast one, overtook us.

But of course if you’re a reader there’s an up side to this. And I now have on my Kindle the Will Storr that I mentioned last Sunday, and was attempting to read that. I say attempting to – a couple of seats from me was a bishop, purple and splendid, and having a magisterial speaking voice to go with it. Clearly he was used to projecting his words around cathedrals, and so our railway carriage had very little chance. He was talking to his wife, who sat opposite him. I hadn’t really thought about it, but the decibels must be an occupational hazard if you’re the wife of a bishop. (Or the husband of a bishop, if we ever have any of those.) The subject matter, on the other hand, was not at all episcopal, but quite mundane, even though rendered beautifully and sonorously – perfect, in fact, for undermining the concentration.

And so that is how my exploration of why we believe what we believe was disrupted by a booming bishop.

Exciting times

Commuting days until retirement: 515

Up to now, there’s been a lot here about how I go to and from work, but not much about what happens when I’m there. I suppose I’ve been fighting a little shy of the topic – after all, it’s the reason this blog is anonymous. Well as I have said elsewhere, I do find satisfaction in the job, and I’m lucky to have a decent set of people as co-workers. Most – no, all of them – are younger than me, you won’t be surprised to hear, and I ‘m very happy with that.

fruitfliesWhat I wanted to do here was just to say something about the linguistic oddities of the work environment. I have found that in the artificial atmosphere of a big company – and this one is certainly the largest I have ever worked for – these rather grotesque business-speak distortions of everyday language thrive and breed like mutant fruit flies.

Perhaps it’s the superfluity of written communication which encourages this. As if the excess of personal emails, and copies of emails, which multiply exponentially with the size of the organisation, were not enough, there are official collections of ‘news’ that thud into your inbox two or three times daily. These of course are relentlessly upbeat in tone, even at times when the public business press (which I don’t often read) is painting a gloomier picture of the company. It’s rather like living in a totalitarian society, albeit a reasonably benevolent one. On the shop floor these emails appear to meet with the same sort of unspoken, weary indifference as official pronouncements in the streets of communist era Moscow.

But what of the language? Emails, both corporate and individual, are replete with the sort of jargon you can find in any Web dictionary of business clichés. And of course they find their way into spoken language – or is it the other way around?  This is well worked-over territory, so I’ll just look at a few of those that particularly irritate me.  Here are three that I encounter especially frequently:

  • Going forward – in the future, from now on.
  • Leverage (pronounced the American way, and used as a verb) – to make effective use of.
  • Bandwidth – the capacity or time you have available to take on additional work.

It has to be admitted, looking at the definitions, that the last two are succinct, even if they are ugly. And looking over the Web I have found some that I positively like. Here’s one I found which describes a situation I am well familiar with from my working life – only I never knew of a name for it. Imagine you have a boss who makes it his duty to find shortcomings, real or imagined, in any work that you come up with, and puts you to extra work remedying them. The way to deal with such a person is to deliberately insert a flaw which is glaringly obvious but easily put right. The boss finds it, you save time, and everyone is happy. This is giving the dog a bone.

But descend with me now into the teeth-on-edge zone, if you haven’t got there already. There’s poor, weary old thinking outside the box, so universally derided that it should have been in its grave long ago. But nevertheless, its undead carcass continues to lurch about the workplace; I still hear people use it without irony or embarrassment.  And here’s one I particularly detest: any ordinary, workaday act of communication with someone (emailing, phoning or simply meeting them) is referred to as reaching out to them. In traditional language, you might reach out to someone in distress, for example. But importing this phrase into the utilitarian world of commercialism seems like an attempt to clothe perfectly honest, but quite insignificant actions with a bogus air of wisdom and beneficence which they really don’t merit. And of course it’s used so often that it has become meaningless.

excitedBut now I come to what is for me the buttock-clenching nadir of business-speak – and this is one that I haven’t seen in anyone else’s list. My first encounter with it was when I was only just starting my job, after some years of working for myself. An email from one of the heads of the new company welcomed me, and said that, with my business knowledge, he was excited about taking me on. I wasn’t sure whether to be more surprised at the image of him jumping all over the furniture with breathless euphoria in his office, or at the idea that I had any business knowledge. (I haven’t – I can only put it down to having done my homework and tried to ask some intelligent questions in the interview.)

But I soon found that this was now the standard way of speaking of any forthcoming development in the corporate world, especially in written communication. It’s difficult to believe, seeing people soberly go about the everyday tasks of their jobs, that all this excitement is crackling in the air. But everything issued by the leaders of the company is saturated with it – it’s as if they are all competing with each other to be more excited than their fellow executives. You imagine that a board meeting must be like a pentecostal prayer gathering in the American bible belt. And of course those emails I mentioned are positively tumescent with excitement.

Well not so long ago, an employee questionnaire went round. Yes, as you’ve guessed, up came the question I dreaded. Was I excited?  A dilemma – it was supposedly anonymous, but bearing in mind that totalitarian analogy, you can’t be entirely sure.  Reader, I entered into a Faustian pact, and said I was excited. (Well, quite high on a scale of 0-10 – you know how those questionnaire things work.)  So I just hope that He Who Knows the Identity of Every Anonymous Blogger won’t hold it against me in the final reckoning.

So it’s not just the end of commuting that makes me to look forward to retirement. It’s a life of breakfast cereal, the postman, the shopping, grass, trees, earth – ordinary things and ordinary language. Now that makes me excited.

A morning of Intuitive Soul Whispering

Commuting days until retirement: 518

bigquestionsSunday – so rather than struggling to the train to notch up another commuting day, I am in my dressing gown munching toast in front of the Andrew Marr Show. And I stay on with the telly for that strange confection called The Big Questions. From what I’ve seen of this before it’s rather prone to producing Small Answers. Today was no exception, particularly in the section on the topic “Is faith compatible with reason?” (A mere third of the programme devoted to this.) The programme demonstrates that faith which TV producers have, against all reason, that if you plonk enough people with extreme and diametrically opposed opinions in front of each other, and give them each a few moments each to rant at each other, that some enlightenment will come out of it all.  (Well, I know that their agenda is to deliver ratings, rather than enlightenment. But couldn’t Sunday morning ‘god-slot’ TV be viewed more as a public service, and less as a ratings deliverer? Unfortunately I think that the brains of the people who run BBC1 are hardwired to work the other way.)

On the programme, the most difficult participant to ignore – and certainly the most irritating – was a lady called Andrea Foulkes, an accomplished TV performer, who, as she was anxious to impress on us, has had her own show on ITV. Among the accomplishments mentioned on her website is that of being an “Intuitive Soul Whisperer”. Well, we all need one of those. And what did she have to say? I will have to quote (thank goodness for iPlayer, allowing me to check I’m quoting accurately):

Quantum physics is starting to prove that the heart has a cohesive wave-form – it has a pattern, which is replicated, which creates emotion… Everyone’s thoughts and beliefs come from three strains: they come from ancestral pattterns, which we call genetic… and then you have past life patterns; and then you have compounded stuff, which you have from  being in the womb to the present day, because you have consciousness in the womb. And this creates your current reality…

“What is your external proof?” asked someone.  “External proof?” she burbled on, sweetly tolerant of those too slow to keep up with her, “External proof is clients who have experienced it, and they change their reality… all realities exist, but they exist within different dimensions. We live in a multidimensional reality, we live in a holographic universe”. (“We live in a what?”, interjected a bemused presenter.)

Well of course you don’t need to be a specialist in any of the disciplines she skipped over to be able to recognise all this as piffle of a high order. Further debate showed her telegenic, coiffeured carapace to be case-hardened against any assault by reason or logic. Which rather played into the hands of the other participant who made an impression on me – this time a positive one.

Will Storr, I learnt, is just bringing out a book: The Heretics – Adventures with the Enemies of Science, which supports the idea that we often choose our beliefs at first out of emotionally derived motives, only then seeking to justify them by selectively adopting the arguments which support them. While this can’t be universally true, it’s an issue which has always interested me. His pre-publication reviewers on Amazon are generally approving, if a little lukewarm, but I feel it’s a must-read for me. It comes out on Thursday, and I’ve preordered it on my Kindle.

That will use up a few train journeys, and I hope to report back in a future post. So – thank you, BBC, and sorry for my carping above. I did get something out of The Big Questions after all.

Now a whole evening of Pinter

Commuting days until retirement: 518

For my homeward commute I sometimes get a different train to a nearby town, where my wife and I spend the evening in a small theatre which can put on some pretty good productions. Seats are not reserved so we can settle in the front row, sometimes right at the feet of the actors. When I was younger I probably would have found this rather unsettling – but now I love it. The standard is high – I don’t think we’ve ever seen a dud performance there.

After my one minute of Pinter in the previous post, I watched tonight’s actors tackling the demanding task of a double bill – two one-act plays (different actors in each). These were A Kind of Alaska, inspired by Oliver Sacks’s book Awakenings, and Landscape, which you might think of as more like ‘classic’ Pinter. I was looking forward to the first particularly, but in the end it was Landscape that seemed to take a bigger hold on me. The audience was unusually small – maybe 40 or so – was it the cold weather? I don’t know – this isn’t a town where you’d expect Pinter to be shunned. But perhaps that added to the intensity.

For Alaska, what stood out was a gutsy and compelling performance by the central character, Deborah, who is woken by the drug from 29 years of suspended animation.  In the course of 50 minutes she passes from unconsciousness through confusion and rehearsal of memories whose relation with the present is puzzling to her, to realisation of her state, and an eventual foreshadowing of a return to catatonia. There are two other characters on stage – the doctor and the patient’s sister, whom the doctor has married. Pinter thereby links them all together, not admitting into the play any character who is professionally detached, or above the fray. And so these characters’ weaknesses are on display too, showing at times a positively accusatory attitude to the patient for what she has put them all through – and this seems grimly believable.


Landscape was shorter – 40 minutes, more like Pinter in lacking any  such concrete dramatic situation, but no less intense. It’s a dialogue (well, two intertwined monologues, really) between two married characters. Throughout the play she faces away from him, and seems immune to his half-hearted overtures towards her, the offered drink untouched.  The picture I found of another production gives an idea – although our wife looked rather more demure than this one. Meanwhile she describes a series of mildly erotic encounters – with another man, it seems (I wasn’t entirely sure, and, looking it up, am reassured to find Wikipedia isn’t either.)  Her descriptions alternate and sometimes overlap his more earthbound experiences involving pubs, dogs, drinking and sometimes his wife. The landscape of the title I take to be both literal and metaphorical – the literal landscapes, seemingly quite separate, in which their respective accounts are set, and the entirely different mental landscapes they inhabit.

So what was it that grabbed me? Probably what usually does it for me with Pinter – what I think of as his verbal ballet. A stylised dance, unlike real conversation in most aspects, performed on so many levels: the meanings of the words and phrases, the images, the intertwining in time of the successive speeches, the changes of mood. In this play, the man makes attempts to speak to the woman, which she entirely ignores. On the other hand, his narrative is entirely unrelated to anything she says, but, if I wasn’t mistaken, hers sometimes obliquely takes cues from him. And I love the way Pinter’s raw materials are all commonplace descriptions and expressions – the plays are rather like fantastical sculptures built out of good old ordinary, solid bricks. At one point the husband launches into an impassioned and painstaking account of how beer is stored and dispensed, which sounds absolutely authentic. I remember one play (was it The Caretaker?) where there is a detailed description of the 38 bus route in North London. I lived near the area at the time, and knew it was accurate.

I was wondering recently about the differences and similarities with Samuel Beckett.  Beckett I have always found to be far less approachable, and (dare I utter such heresy?) even a little pretentious. I’ve seen a video of Breath – 30 seconds of heavy breathing accompanied by a heap of rubbish, and I’ve been to a production of Happy Days, when (was it Peggy Ashcroft?) is buried up to the neck in earth, while her companion reads out the inscription on the back of a toothbrush.  And I’ve seen a novel that seemed unreadable. I’ve also seen Waiting for Godot, and Krapp’s Last Tape. I find them all opaque. If there is symbolism it seems overworked – but of course you’re never sure whether there is. Pinter’s subtlety and lightness of touch is absent. Probably a blind spot on my part, especially as Pinter himself admired Beckett. So I have added another video demonstrating this, but I don’t find it helps my unbelief.

But apart from that…

Commuting days until retirement: 521

One train activity I missed out in the last post was just simply talking on the phone. (Sometimes now it is easy to forget that a phone is still, well, a phone.) While people do text a lot on trains, which is considerate, and much better for the readers, like me, there are still those whose intimate domestic arrangements – or, worse, work problems – are offered up to the whole carriage.

I must admit I did once get a bit of unfair entertainment from a woman opposite me, who had the task of getting someone in her office to do something urgent that she would have been doing herself, had she been there. However it was obvious that this needed a more than elementary knowledge of how to work some application on the computer, and that the person at the other end she had to instruct was fairly slow on the uptake. Just as, with infinite patience, she was on the point of getting a result with some part of the task, the train would go into a tunnel and contact would be lost. I have never seen such a study in repressed frustration. As everyone else around stared out of the window, buried themselves in their books, or did anything to appear not to be listening, she looked likely to get up and kick us all in the shins.

But there are also conversations which remind you of the fact that, while mobiles have given people many more opportunities to talk to one another, they haven’t necessarily got anything more to say. I think this is what Harold Pinter had in mind when he responded to the advent of the mobile phone by writing a short sketch. (I thought of this because we are going to a Pinter play on Friday, of which more, I hope later.)

I remember the sketch pretty well because, rather unusually, it was performed on BBC Newsnight, and one of the characters was played by Pinter himself, probably something like a year or two before he died. I have just done a bit of Googling and found to my delight that it’s on YouTube. (Well obviously, once you think of it.) So I have put it below. Although the actors are sitting in the studio and reading from scripts, you’re to imagine that they are speaking on mobile phones. The vain attempts of the two characters to find something significant to say are both funny and tragic  Enjoy it.

Reading on the train – and weightier matters

Commuting days until retirement: 523

If you have to sit on a train for any amount of time (an hour or so each day in my case) there is the decision as to how to spend it. From observation, here is a list of the most common ways, in rough order of popularity:

  1. Fiddle with your smartphone
  2. Read the Metro or Standard (free newspapers) – or do Sudoku on the puzzles page
  3. Look out of the window.
  4. Stare straight ahead, avoiding of course any eye contact with the people opposite you
  5. Read something, or play a game, on your tablet computer
  6. Read a book or e-reader
  7. (If male) take a friend with you and talk incessantly about football

Well, I go for 6, and seem to get more reading in on commuting days than other ones. (You can probably tell that you wouldn’t find me involved in 7). And that gives me an opening into what I’ve been reading recently – a book on Alan Turing, published at the time of his recent centenary. And there’s also a link with something that’s currently topical.


If you don’t know about Alan Turing, here’s a brief description: born in 1912, he quickly showed himself to be a mathematician and thinker of genius, becoming a Fellow of Kings College Cambridge at the age of 22. He’s famous in the first place for his pre-war paper On Computable Numbers which not only offered one solution to a long-standing problem in mathematics, but also laid for the first time down the basic theory of operation of the modern computer. This of was of course before his work on code-breaking at Bletchley, where in complete secrecy at the time, not revealed until the 1970s, he played a central role in saving Britain from being starved into submission by Hitler’s U-boats. After the war he continued to work on embryonic computers. Another famous paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, in which he speculated on the ability of machines to ‘think’, and proposed the much-discussed Turing Test, appeared in 1950.

He was homosexual, and in 1952 rather artlessly reported to the police a theft from his house by an overnight partner. The police immediately became more interested in the possibility of what was then the crime of “gross indecency” than the burglary. He was subsequently prosecuted, and sentenced to be chemically castrated by taking an oestrogen substitute, as an alternative to prison. In 1954 he was found dead, having half-eaten an apple contaminated with cyanide, a chemical that he had been using in experiments. The inquest verdict was one of suicide, and this is widely believed to be correct. However it’s also thought that he carefully devised the means of his suicide so that his death could be believed – especially by his mother – to have been an accident.

And the interest of the book I have been reading is that it mostly consists of a biography of him written in the late 1950s by his mother, which has long been out of print. And she does indeed strongly defend the accident theory, and manages never once to refer to his homosexuality. She would of course have known about it, having attended the inquest, and almost certainly knew earlier – but of course at the time she wrote it would have been especially bad form to have mentioned, after anyone’s death (let alone one’s own son), what would have been thought of as a shameful secret.

His personality


Alan Turing in 1934

What does emerge very strongly from her account is his exceptionally attractive personality. This is not just her own assessment, but supported by letters from friends and colleagues who wrote to her after his death. Many acts of generosity are recorded, and it is noted by many how he would take great pains to help the understanding of those less talented than himself, without any sense of talking down to them. He could be eccentric, unpredictable and often scatty – but entirely without side or pretension. I particularly like a story relating to the OBE awarded to him for his war work. (It doesn’t seem much of a recognition, given the magnitude of the achievement – people have been knighted for far less – but I suppose that had something to do with the secrecy.)  He was certainly proud of the award, but friends noticed that when, in the course of his many practical experiments, he opened a tin full of bolts, screws and metal components, there was the OBE medal, knocking about among them.

In the second part of the book is a shorter account by his older brother John, apparently written some time in the 1980s. This repeats much of the material in his mother’s account, but is viewed through the very different lens of John’s personality – not such an attractive one, you feel. He does indeed acknowledge his brother’s genius as well as his human qualities, but we are very soon aware of a curmudgeonly streak being on display. He announces at the start that in his mother’s work

a false note has been struck somewhere: could Alan have been quite that paragon of virtue that my mother describes? Yet, if an elder brother ventures to suggest the contrary, it can easily be suggested that he is jealous and sour. This is a risk I must accept. My only concern is to put the record straight, however hazardous the enterprise.

Well, pomposity appears to be another quality we can ascribe to John. But re-reading his account I am finding it difficult to see that Alan’s supposed faults are really anything more than unconventional behaviour seen from the standpoint of a rather stiffly conventional onlooker. Examples are his habit of turning up at the houses of friends or family, with short notice, at unsocial hours, or writing many more letters to professional colleagues than to his family. Irritating, perhaps, but hardly heinous. ”Worst of all”, he laments later, “was the unsightly condition of his hands, with every finger picked raw in a dozen places… I felt sicker and sicker until I devised a special system to prevent me from looking at them at all.”

His mother’s failure to mention the homosexuality he puts down to “Edwardian reticence” – but continues, unconscious of any irony, “I am trying to make this memoir as truthful as I can, so I will not go to the length of pretending that I like homosexuals.” (I suppose we can excuse prejudice on the part of someone born in 1908). He mentions the testimony of Alan to a psychiatrist, passed to John after Alan’s death, that Alan “loathed” his mother. I’m not sure what to make of this – I imagine that, as psychiatric testimony is likely to be, it could have been very ambivalent. But I suspect that John Turing did not do subtlety.

Gay marriage

I’m writing this at the beginning of a week in which there will be a vote on gay marriage in the House of Commons. It’s tempting to wonder how Alan Turing’s life might have differed in such an age as ours.  Well, it would have been longer, but otherwise there’s probably no meaningful answer. His personality was formed as a highly intelligent gay man in a society which he knew couldn’t cope with the notion of anyone being gay.

The same malady, in an attenuated form, still exists today. It’s among straight people that controversy mostly flares when it comes to the question of gay marriage. Individual gay couples (like anyone else) may be either keen on marriage, or not bothered about it. But for many straight people, the gay version “undermines the institution of marriage, which should be between a man and a woman.”

This is piffle. To me, it’s a no-brainer. If you feel, as many do, that marriage is a valuable institution, you can hardly be upbeat about its state today, when a big proportion of those marrying eventually divorce, and others feel they can dispense with it altogether. How can the inclusion of many gay people who are anxious to marry do anything but strengthen it?


So would Alan Turing have wanted to marry? An even more meaningless question, I think. In fact, he was at one time engaged, in the conventional sense, to Joan Clarke, who was a fellow codebreaker at Bletchley and no mean mathematician herself, by all accounts. John Turing met her on visits home and evidently thought little of her – an “unpromising female” whom he compared unfavourably with his own girl friends. In his account, she was “safe” (i.e. unattractive), and he prides himself on his ability, which Alan lacks, to deal with women who are not “safe”. It becomes fairly clear that his real problem was an inability to cope with an intellectual woman: he does speak explicitly of his distaste for Alan’s lack of small talk, and keenness on intellectual debate.

Turing Memorial in Manchester

Turing Memorial in Manchester

According to Andrew Hodges’ biography (recommended – see below) Alan warned Joan, a little disingenuously, that he had “homosexual tendencies”, but found that this did not discourage her. Eventually, he ended the engagement altogether, evidently feeling that it could not work in the long run. The relationship had lasted through the summer of 1941, fuelled by many shared enthusiasms, and was not the cursory and “farcical affair” which Alan’s brother attempts to portray. One imagines Alan caught between his own nature and the crushing conventions of his society, unsure of how far he could compromise.

If we have made progress since then, I think it has to do with the dawning realisation that the goodness in human nature doesn’t need a monolithic structure of social dogma to ratify it – it will flower anyway, whether conventional or not. Alan Turing was a good man who lived outside that structure, and paid a penalty for doing so. Unlike his older brother, he was ahead of his time, in more ways than one.

The book I read was :
Turing, Sara, Alan M. Turing: Centenary Edition. Cambridge University Press 2012

An excellent biography:
Hodges, Andrew, Alan Turing: The Enigma.  First pub. 1984, Vintage Paperback 2012

Andrew Hodges maintains a Turing website at

If you can it’s well worth seeing the stage play by Hugh Whitemore, Breaking the Code, which has also been produced for BBC TV – and is now, I have discovered, on YouTube.