Over the weekend I saw Hugh Whitemore's play about Alan Turing, BREAKING THE CODE, at the Erickson Theatre in Seattle. It was a terrific production and Bradford Farwell, as Turing, was amazing. Not every actor can make ten minutes' of uninterrupted exposition about mathematics dramatically riveting. Turing came across as naive, enthusiastic, reckless, focused -- what the Middle Ages called "a holy innocent."
As everyone knows, Turing was not treated well by the British and American governments. His contribution to breaking the German "enigma code" was incalculably important to winning World War II, and his work led directly to the computer upon which I am typing this blog. But after the war he was hounded as a "security risk" because of his homosexuality, imprisoned, and marginalized. Finally he killed himself.
This all reminded me of another scientist ridiculed and driven to a nervous breakdown for an important discovery: Ignaz Semmelweiss. He was a physician who discovered that a major cause of puerperal fever after childbirth was doctors. They were going directly from handling cadavers to delivering babies and attending new mothers. Semmelweiss found that in his hospital, simple hand-washing cut the incidence of puerperal fever to 1%. For this he was scorned and rejected by the medical community, in part for the assertion that doctors, gentlemen all, could possibly be doing something wrong.
What this brings to mind is a large question: What discovery (in any field) are we, right now, rejecting and scorning because it doesn't fit with what we think we know? And at what cost?
Good theater is supposed to raise such questions. BREAKING THE CODE does.