My top ten heroines and heroes

Who we idolise reveals something valuable about us. Here are some of the people whose lives and works have inspired me.

What I write about the telecoms business, or the wider role of technology in society, cannot be separated from my own identity and life experiences. I thought I might share some of my heroines and heroes so my might get a better sense of who I am and what energises my creative madness.

Alan Turing

Mr Turing has recently become so famous he is almost a computing cliché; yet he has been in my field of view since the 1980s. Then he was an obscure historical figure primarily remembered by theoretical computer scientists and budding mathematicians.

As a gymnastic pygmy balanced atop many heaped intellectual giants, I am fortunate enough to have a minor part in completing and extending his fundamental work on the nature of distributed computation and its relationship to the world.

The day I saw a vial of oestrogen in the Turing exhibition at the Science Museum in London, my spine went totally cold. I then fully understood that he had been chemically tortured by the British state for his homosexuality and differentness. This was a profound act of betrayal.

I have often wondered if he did not commit suicide, but rather was murdered for what he knew (and possibly as a warning to others); in my view, this theory fits the limited facts better than the “official” story we are fed. But I could be wrong.

Some aspects of his life are painfully resonant with my own, and I have ignored revisionist media attempts to portray him since I have little faith that they represent reality.

Richard Feynman

Rigour, humility and mischief. Prof Feynman brought together a rich understanding of human nature and combined it with a ruthless search for scientific truth. His sense of human frailty and fallibility was tempered with a compassion for the less extraordinary that allowed him to remain an “ordinary man” at some level.

His gift was most comprehensively demonstrated after the Challenger disaster as an accident inquiry board member: genius is not to comprehend complexity, but rather to see essential simplicity, and communicate that to others in a manner they can understand and relate to. He was a master teacher as well as scientist.

His relationship to authority was also one which informed mine: don’t let the uniform intimidate you, pay attention to the human inside it.


One of the most courageous acts we can undertake is to dare to be different, and transcend judgement for it. Björk Guðmundsdóttir is not merely a heroine, but a creative idol. Her ability to blend and bend genres, craft sonic tapestries and communicate her inner “emotional landscapes” is unsurpassed.

Just as Mozart is now revered as a “classical” genius, I predict that Björkology will be on 22nd century music curricula as the “classical” music of the early electronic era.

Sophie Wilson

Returning to the LGBTQ computing halls of fame, Sophie Wilson is one of the architects of the ARM chip and instruction set, which has an exceptional beauty and elegance in its form and function. She also is a key design force behind the BBC Micro, which changed my life as a teenager.

She is also a remarkable and brave transgender woman. I would so wish to meet her some day, although I doubt I could sufficiently contain my excitement and awe to engage in meaningful conversation.

Terrence McKenna

How can I put this? There are ways of widening the aperture of your mind in order to let more of reality in than the design spec originally allowed for. Once you’ve had an entheogenic experience (or even many!), “normal” consensus reality appears somewhat narrow, and the thinking processes of the uninitiated might seem unnecessarily constrained.

McKenna was a consummate philosopher of individual and collective consciousness. Some of his theories are possibly a little too creative in their inspiration, and border on the unknowable (i.e. they were totally nuts). Despite this, he brought a set of deep insights into the human condition.

His fearless intellectual and practical exploration was rooted in questions nobody had dared think, let alone ask. An example is whether the development of human intelligence has (in part) been the result of our ancestors tripping on natural substances like psilocybin.

That his raucously dulcet voice appears on several Shpongle albums is sheer added delight.

Paul Erdős

Despite having a mathematics degree from a premium educational institution, I am a terrible mathematician. I never really got over discovering dry rot in the conceptual basement (Axiom of Choice, Incompleteness Theorem). I have also never issued a single research paper, although I have done my bit of bedtime storytelling about ∆Q, which is the new “complex numbers of probability”.

In contrast, Erdös was a prolific and profound mathematician, one of the most successful. My total admiration was how he did it without having to shop for food, cook meals or do laundry. He managed this by endlessly doing a fancy version of sofa surfing.

Thus far I have had great success in emulating him. I am always open to offers of interesting invitations to exchange food and lodging for engaging intellectual discourse!


Our heroes should be imperfect in perfect ways, and Martin Luther King Jr is such a hero. There are other icons whose elevated reputation is debatable (Mohandas Gandhi) or utterly false (Mother Teresa). King had total “skin in the game” (pun intended), and overcame the opposition of the state and an entrenched culture of discrimination to enact a radical and positive change in the world.

Indeed, it was once a heretical idea to reject slavery, let alone racism. After all, it was legal, and anything legal is OK, no? And anything illegal must be wrong, yes? I think we all know the answer. The most profound heresy is to advance an unpopular truth without flinching in the face of resistance by those benefitting from the status quo.

His love life was a little more elaborate than some, but nowhere near as unusual as many bright people I know. It’s good to have heroes with human foibles. Especially of that kind.

Helen Keller

My younger daughter was born blind in one eye. This shook me to the core. I have recovered. She is lovely. There were many sources of comfort and inspiration in this journey of growth.

Helen Keller’s life is defined in part by her deaf-blind physiology, but in reality she was a “white witch” in touch with wisdom and wonder. “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.”

Stonewall rioters

By and large, I am a peaceful creature. However, there is a moment at which the expression of rage through the destruction of property may be appropriate, as to respond to violent oppression is to reject it. Those who rioted one night in 1969 set in motions one of the most successful civil rights movements. This has changed the world for the better.

As American writer Dorothy Parker wittily put in, “Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.” It’s a relief to be gay and gorgeous and for it to be remarkably ordinary. For them, I offer gratitude.

Roald Dahl

I am in endless love with Dahl’s playful irreverence, subversive plots and masterful characters. In the novels that I read when growing up, he offers the possibility that adults really don’t understand the world, and this is a secret that only innocent children can fully grasp. It turns out that this quite likely is true.

Dahl’s work is suffused with a beautiful ethos: no matter how cruel, repulsive or ridiculous the supporting characters are, the central participant never loses their hope, love or morals. He provides a safe space for wickedness, wantonness and waywardness to enter into the junior psyche.

Most of all, he had a sense of unbounded imagination combined with a refined craftsmanship with words. Whilst I cannot begin to rival Dahl in those traits, it offers inspiration nonetheless.


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