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Boffin agonistes

The Imitation Game is a terrific watch, but John Whitfield wishes the film-makers had understood that even great mathematicians have their sociable side.

When I was at school, the word ‘boffin’ filled, without irony, the role now occupied by ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ in categorising or insulting people. The change from one to the others shows not just the Americanisation of our culture in the subsequent 30 years, but also the extent to which computing has come to define technology and its adepts.

In the UK, this process has coincided with the seemingly unstoppable rise of the myth of Bletchley Park and Alan Turing. Bletchley is England’s Manhattan Project, made out of string and old bicycle parts and minus a long moral hangover—although the recent revelations about governments’ electronic eavesdropping suggest that such a hangover may still be pending.

It’s easy to see the story’s appeal. It’s both peculiarly British—we beat Hitler by virtue of being good at crosswords and then kept mum about it for half a century—and, in the figure of Turing, the genius persecuted by the establishment he had saved, universally tragic. 

Following Turing’s by-public-demand royal pardon comes The Imitation Game, a biopic directed by the Norwegian Morten Tyldum and starring Benedict Cumberbatch. The bulk of the film is set at Bletchley Park, and follows Turing and his team’s efforts to decrypt Enigma messages and then keep almost everyone, both enemy and ally, from finding out.

Interleaved with this are flashes forward to his 1951 arrest and back to his schooldays in the 1920s. The film stops short of his death, although it might be symbolic that Turing’s first attempt to build a relationship with his fellow code breakers involves giving them apples, the fruit he would later lace with cyanide.

It’s an entertaining movie, fusing wartime thriller with what the American novelist David Foster Wallace called the Math Melodrama, with “its hero a kind of Prometheus-Icarus figure whose high-altitude genius is also hubris and fatal flaw”. The scene where Enigma is broken brought a lump to my throat, albeit that the story is radically simplified—breaking Germany’s codes involved successive breakthroughs in intelligence and cryptography, as well as giving Turing a shed in which to invent the computer.

But that’s OK. Few will buy their popcorn expecting a really good delve into Turing’s work on the Entscheid­ungsproblem, although some might wince when Keira Knightley, playing Turing’s colleague (and for a brief while fiancée) Joan Clarke, pronounces Euler as Yooler.

More disappointing, I think, is that by portraying Turing as a friendless loner, the film misses the sociability of research entirely. Cumberbatch plays Turing as both boffin and geek, someone who builds a computer and then falls in love with it. His screen presence is undeniable, but he’s like a wimpier version of the same actor’s Sherlock Holmes, largely indifferent to the effect he has on people and sometimes seeming to have been assembled from a diagnostic checklist for autism.

Turing probably could be socially awkward and solitary—few of his papers, for example, have co­authors—but an inability to tell whether someone fancies you can coexist with a zeal for communication and collaboration on maths, code-breaking or any other area of specialised expertise. People can use their intellectual strengths to create social connections, and to seek out or create congenial environments.

The film also plays up Turing’s otherworldliness: he sees breaking Enigma mostly as a tasty puzzle. According to Andrew Hodges, however, the mathematician and activist on whose biography the film is based, Turing turned to cryptography before the war, anticipating the German threat. He also worked for the UK intelligence agency GCHQ after the war and, the way Hodges tells it, was driven to despair in the last year of his life by the loss of his security clearance as well as by the oestrogen injections forced upon him after he was convicted for homosexuality—something he was never ashamed of or particularly secretive about.

Turing’s status as the great innovator we never knew we had also feeds his myth by chiming with wistfulness—perhaps a less problematic substitute for nostalgia for an empire—for the time when Britain was a technological superpower, with enough home-grown know-how to build Routemaster buses, VC10 jetliners and nuclear power stations.

The Imitation Game ends with the man from MI6 ordering Turing and his Bletchley colleagues to burn their work. They are happy to have made themselves obsolete through victory. But for today’s British audience, it’s hard not to read the scene as a nation sending its head-start in a defining modern technology up in smoke.

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight