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If you haven't seen The Imitation Game, you should. I just caught it on DVD. Be warned first though it's terribly sad. It's about Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician and computer scientist who helped Britain and the allies win WWII by building a machine that decoded german radio messages. But the society he lived in was more concerned that he was a homosexual and wasted a great deal of his potential with bullshit intolerance. His life ended early, his career ended early, his work was spent under the shadow of secrets. Why? Because people.

The movie did a good job with that message. What they didn't do so well was the technology.

A few years back I read a book that became one of my all-time favorites, called The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun. The theme of that book is that our assumptions about scientists are all wrong, and screwing with our ability to duplicate the processes great inventors use to innovate.

We learn in history class all these stories about one amazing hero guy (Newton, Jobs, Edison, Einstein) being an eccentric super genius all alone and one day in the shower he suddenly realizes the answer to everything and the next day we have the iphone.

In reality when you look back at the stories and talk to the people involved, the majority of great innovations are created by teams or partnerships. not one guy working all alone. and there are failures along the way. and that great idea only happened because of years of work... like putting the last piece in a jigsaw puzzle, you don't say "oh I SUDDENLY solved it!"

So I wondered what Scott Berkun (who is also a really nice guy on Twitter) would say about The Imitation Game, which shows Alan Turning being a real jerk to his colleagues and wanting to work alone because he doesn't need anybody. So I searched, and found that he'd linked to this wonderful wonderful article by Monica Guzman:


Guzman reports that the movie did us all a disservice - Turing was not a "lone genius" asshole at all. His colleagues said the movie straight up lied about that to make the story more interesting and don't we all know that's how scientists are supposed to BE. There were others in the group who made very important contributions to the code-breaking machine, and Turing was willing to work with them all along.

The movie also glossed over the actual math and science behind the machine, assuming us audience members have no interest or just aren't smart enough. You're all not smart enough. Here's the genius, just get out of his way. That's the message.

But the message is really bad for science, as it always has been. We wonder why kids don't want to go into math and science?

Maybe it's all these films that send the message that unless you are The Chosen One, you have nothing to give.

We need to tell the real stories of how great ideas found their way into our lives, empower more students to believe in themselves. Science isn't just for magic science people. It's for hard workers, team players, passionate enthusiasts, and it thrives on diversity. There's a spot for everybody and that message needs to go out.

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( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 6th, 2015 04:15 pm (UTC)
When I heard that the film calumnied Turing by suggesting that he allowed a spy to blackmail him over his sexuality I lost all interest in watching it, despite the raves. This post only cements that decision.
Jun. 6th, 2015 04:38 pm (UTC)
I think that this lie allows the governments to justify what they did. I know that in the US, they banned all homosexuals for a really long time from doing government work that required clearances. In the US, they still ban closeted homosexuals for fear that they would be blackmail targets. But i have not looked deeply into how many times a homosexual has actually been blackmailed with regards to government secrets. And I am not sure if that is really a fact that could easily be researched. There have been a number of homosexuals or bisexuals who have been ostracized by government, but I have not seen the cases where any of them did real damage to a cause that they were working for.

Jun. 6th, 2015 05:58 pm (UTC)
There was a similar ban in place in the UK at least until the 1970s: I remember the Labour politician (as he then was) David Owen going on TV to justify it. I never really understood it even in the Government's own terms, though - since it effectively banned only "out" homosexuals (the fact of whose homosexuality could not by definition be used to blackmail them), while ensuring that any closeted homosexuals would be maximally vulnerable to blackmail.

But in the case of Turing it is simply a libel.
Jun. 6th, 2015 04:17 pm (UTC)
I suspect they want to present science as being like rock stars or sports stars, where one person makes it huge and is wildly successful. People are familiar with that narrative. They're a lot less familiar with the idea of a whole bunch of people spending years at a hard grind and then coming up with a billion dollar success.
Jun. 6th, 2015 07:00 pm (UTC)
*nods* That "prima donna" narrative seems to be how showbiz portrays most stuff... I wonder whether they're just retelling things from their own experience there. Star worship seems pretty standard in Hollywood.
Jun. 6th, 2015 08:42 pm (UTC)
It's also a more compelling individual narrative: "you! could be a superstar!"
Jun. 7th, 2015 10:17 am (UTC)
Maybe I'm out of step... the very individualness of that narrative is off-putting to me. I don't think I have to be so much different from my friends and colleagues as that to be interesting and worthwhile.
Jun. 7th, 2015 03:34 pm (UTC)
I suspect they're largely aiming this at a demographic for whom social and financial success at any level is largely unavailable, so rock-star (or lottery) success is a more realistic fantasy than any other options they have available.
Jun. 8th, 2015 02:04 am (UTC)
See, even that assessment seems a bit dismissive to me. If you can go see a movie at the theater, you can probably achieve at least a modicum of success if you work at it.
Jun. 6th, 2015 04:25 pm (UTC)

We still have to see this movie. My expectations for historical Hollywood movies are terribly low because they are so often poorly done with characters combined or left out.

As nerds we experience the same feeling with techie movies. When I was a web developer the teams were huge and had to work together. There would be 3-4 each of developers, programmers, designers, 2 production artists and 1-2 project managers, 1 QA person and then the release engineer who uploads everything. This stuff just doesn't happen by itself :)

Jun. 6th, 2015 04:41 pm (UTC)
I hate that stereotype, and you've done an excellent job here explaining why it's wrong and unhelpful.
Jun. 6th, 2015 04:45 pm (UTC)
But didn't Newton and Einstein actually fall into that stereotype of the lone genius catching lightning strikes, at least when it came to their major contributions? I'm not taking issue with your thesis, but weren't they genuinely exceptional?
Jun. 6th, 2015 09:53 pm (UTC)
Scientists are portrayed as completely taciturn people who do not know how to interact with others. Even if their major contributions did not have collaborators, they did have lives and interact with other people.
Jun. 6th, 2015 09:57 pm (UTC)
Even on that score, Newton was exceptional, no? It sounded to me like he might have had a bad case of Asperger's. But, again, I take him as being strangely exceptional.
Jun. 6th, 2015 10:47 pm (UTC)
Newton had feelings too. Have you read Newton and the Counterfeiter? It was good. The chapters on the counterfeiter's life were less interesting than those on Newton.

Edited at 2015-06-06 10:51 pm (UTC)
Jun. 6th, 2015 11:11 pm (UTC)
No, I have not read it. It does look interesting; though, in truth, science and the whole STEM area is a bit foreign to me, as I generally dawdle around the literature and history fields.

Still, if you somehow got the chance to have dinner with either Einstein or Newton, I think you should go with Einstein. ;)
Jun. 6th, 2015 05:55 pm (UTC)
The story of Turing's life was not right. Things did not happen that way. Yeah, it was a good movie to watch but it did not do him justice.
Jun. 6th, 2015 06:46 pm (UTC)
First, for the question why kids don't go to math and science: Because they get told, both are only disciplines of ugly nerds which nobody likes, which get a girl when they're 25, which live with Mom until they're 30 and even then when they start to make steps into being independent, they're horrible failures at it. Just the fucking cliché of what scientists, inventors and people with better intelligence "are like".

And for the second, for the thing of the Chosen One: That might also play a role in it. Because it is everywhere where you get focussed onto the outstanding work of one person. Job life demands of you you should be able to work together with other people, but what gets highly honored in society with fame, money and compliments is if you're the single superstar. No talking about famous people that they have a team behind them which stands in their back or if they work together with others in a group to create what they create...
Jun. 6th, 2015 08:40 pm (UTC)
I watched it when it came out.

I read The Enigma by Alan Hodges, which is a Turing biography (and on which the movie claimed it was based) about 5-6 years ago, so I don't remember it all that well, but it was obvious to me in the first 5 minutes that... there were distinct inaccuracies. In the first 5 minutes. And this happened continually.

Almost all of the inaccuracies were designed to increase dramatic tension. So the movie itself was very soap opera, and they had a real chance to make something amazing- the theatre was packed even though it premièred 10 days before I watched it. They could have made something interesting and complex and people would have still shown up to see Cumberbatch. So I am sad about that.

Edited at 2015-06-06 08:43 pm (UTC)
Jun. 6th, 2015 09:46 pm (UTC)
Agree. This is why news stories say "scientists have discovered ..." And not "Susan McSusan discovered ..." more often than not. Although that is a pet peeve of mine. I wish they would at least say, "a team of scientists at UC Berkley, under the direction of Susan McSusan, have discovered ..."
Jun. 7th, 2015 05:48 am (UTC)
Alex von Tunzelman wrote a review as part of the Reel history series in the Guardian, which grades historical films on accuracy.


She didn't really cover the "lone genius" aspect, but other than that a good read. I really like the whole series, actually.
Jun. 7th, 2015 07:05 pm (UTC)
That book sounds interesting.
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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