“Hyperboloids of wondrous light,
Rolling for aye in space in time.”
“In space and time!”, the Hertfordshire Chorus exclaimed, filling my heart with love for the wonders of science, and making my neck tingle with contentment and delight at the fact that I can indulge that passion for science as my day job. On the evening of Saturday 26th April 2014, I attended the world premiere of James McCarthy’s new production Codebreaker at The Barbican Theatre with the London Orchestra da Camera and the Hertfordshire Chorus, conducted by David Temple. Codebreaker is based on the fascinating and tragic life story of one of my favourite scientists, Alan Turing. In case you missed Alan Turing Year in 2012, Turing was a British mathematician, chemist (really!) and wartime cryptanalyst, who is regarded as the father of computer science, and the brains behind the cracking of the German Enigma code. Not just an incredibly intelligent man, Turing was also a marathon runner, regularly running from London to Bletchley Park, the home of codebreaking near Milton Keynes. I discovered in the short talk with mathematician James Grime before the performance that Turing had completed a marathon in 2 hours 46 minutes which, had he competed in the Olympics at the time, would have gained him a 15th place spot. I completed the London Marathon in 2012 and it took me over twice that time to complete it then, so my respect for him increased even further upon learning this.
Codebreaker incorporates letters and quotes from himself and his family with poems that perfectly reflect the mood of some very happy and very sad moments in his life. The above quote is from the fourth in a series of postcards that Turing send to Robin Gandy, another British mathematician, that were collectively entitled ‘Messages from the Unseen World’. The performance was very emotional, and made me cry on several occasions, which would have been fine had I not been sat on the front row illuminated by the stage lighting in a shimmery jumper! Through the beautifully composed music, the audience were able to experience some of the many facets of his previously unknown personality, and some of the life-changing moments in his short existence, bringing Turing’s story to life, and driving my synaesthesia wild with emotion-filled colours. In a round-about way there was an element of Turing’s legacy there, as the actor playing him in the up and coming film of his life, The Imitation Game, was also present for the performance. Codebreaker was another fine example of how scientific concepts and stories can be conveyed so effectively and emotively through the arts, and I cannot wait to see the film when it is released. Having already played another of my favourite scientists, Stephen Hawking, so brilliantly about a decade ago, I am now secretly hoping he secures a role as Galileo for a science hattrick.
In the interval, I told my friend Ben and the first few rows of the Barbican Theatre the story of how and why I always think of Turing at least once a day. After years of persecution for being in love with a man, which at the time was illegal, Turing tragically took his own life at the age of 41. Inspired by his favourite story, Snow White, he laced an apple with cyanide, bit into it and died.
Rumour has it that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak decided that the logo for their new company, Apple, would be a subtle nod to Turing’s advances in computer science and his tragic death. Thus the Apple logo came about, with the famous ‘byte’ taken out of it (pun intended – I can only apologise). When I was younger, we had Apple Macs in school that proudly displayed the older rainbow Apple logo. Was this a nod to the rainbow flag adopted by the LGBT movement? The story may not even be true, as an interview with graphic designer Rob Janoff, the artist behind the Apple logo, denies any link to Turing or to any reference to the other myth that the apple symbolises the knowledge of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Despite his denial, every time I look at my phone or tablet, I think of Alan Turing, and I am grateful to live in a world that he helped shape, but also a world where almost everyone is now free to love anyone they like.