Who wins in a struggle between Oppenheimer and Turing?


Oppenheimer, the film by Christopher Nolan, has now cleaned up at the Bafta awards last month, and it is on track to do the same thing at the Oscars…

I keep overhearing people debating between themselves the comparison of Robert Oppenheimer and Alan Turing, his British near contemporary – Turing was six years younger – who was the British candidate for the originator of modern computing.

I feel as if this is also a debate that I ought to express an opinion on – since I have written short biographies of both men.

There is also an implication that this is actually a comparison between two films – between the film Oppenheimer and The Imitation Game, the film which caused such excitement on this side of the Atlantic around the time of Turing’s centenary in 2012 – and partly because of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Turing himself.

Put like that, Oppenheimer wins hands down, partly because of the sheer intensity of a three-hour film and partly because the script used the original words when it could. Whereas I didn’t feel that Cumber0batch’s version of the Turing character accurately reflected Turing’s complicated personality.

He portrayed the poor man as completely in the grip of autism, constantly failing to read human interaction. Yet, if he had been that incapable of dealing with human behaviour, the British authorities would never have sent him alone across the Atlantic to represent them to the American cryptographers once the USA had joined the war in early 1942.

Oppenheimer was clearly able to deal with people effectively, as he was responsible for the successful team at Los Alamos.

He was a theoretical physicist; Turing was a mathematician.

I don’t believe they ever met, but  they certainly had friends in common in common, like the brilliant American mathematician John von Neumann – the American candidate for the inventor of the computer – who met Turing first as a visiting professor in Cambridge in 1936. and who finished the war at Los Alamos.

But there is a deeper comparison possible between the two men. Because by the 1950s, when Oppenheimer was just beginning to realise the dangers he faced from Senator McCarthy and his colleagues by advising the government not to to build an H-bomb.

Turing was also involved in nuclear weapons. He carried out some of the calculations that made an H-bomb possible for the UK.

It must have been this work that made him seem such a security risk, certainly in the eyes of the Americans, who – after the defection of Burgess and Maclean in 1951 – had a horror of male Cambridge-educated scientists who preferred to sleep with men.

That was the real reason he killed himself. It wasn’t because of the gender-bending chemicals he was forced to take to avoid prison for ‘homosexual acts’. That had been over, done and dusted for two years.

It was because he was warned by the security services that, if he went on holiday again with his Norwegian boyfriend, so close to the border with the USSR – probably that they would tell his mother about all his other men, who had been listed so laboriously by Special Branch.

It is peculiar that both Turing and Oppenheimer had run-ins with injecting cyanide into apples.

Turing did this to kill himself on 7 June 1954 – just as Oppenheimer was beginning to find some support from the scientific community, following the indignity of his ‘trial’, after Lewis Strauss – played by Downey – unwisely released the transcripts to the press.

Oppenheimer launched his career in the same way, using an apple belonging to a Cambridge lecturer who was picking on him.

Luckily for him, he escaped the consequences of attempting to murder his tutor (who didn’t eat it) by the presence of his father in Cambridge at the time. It was the start of a nervous breakdown (In the film, the apple is given to Niels Bohr, who very nearly eats it instead).

Even so, the Oppenheimer film shows a man on the edges of sanity, because of the stressful things he has had to do – to be personally responsible for inventing and developing nuclear bombs, only to lose control of the technology to an increasingly paranoid Washington elite.

And then finding he has to justify everything he has done in his life to a trio of officials organised by a man who hated him – for reasons nobody ever quite understood.

We don’t know the names of the UK security personnel who warned Turing in 1954. Nor do we have Robert Downey Jr to play whoever it was for a future remake of The Imitation Game.

There is certainly more of a mystery about Turing’s death – whether he deliberately committed suicide, or – as some

biographers believe – it was all a tragic accident.

I opt for the suggestion of his biographer Alan Hodges, who believed he chose that way to go because it would convince everyone he had killed himself – except his mother, who was already worried about him keeping cyanide so close to his bedroom.

Personally – for what that is worth – I feel sure that was the way. 

David Boyle’s books Oppenheimer: The world destroyed can be bought here (99p during March) and Turing: Unlocking the enigma here.


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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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