You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2012.
[Sampath Kannan is best known for his work on program checking (which was introduced in a joint paper of Sampath and Manuel Blum), computational biology and streaming algorithms, and also for his outstanding service to the computer science theory community, first at NSF and now at the Simons Foundation. He has contributed a personal and deeply felt post to this series.]
I discovered Turing the mathematician long before Turing the gay man. Growing up in India in the pre-internet era, Turing’s story, had I known it, would have probably sparked an earlier awakening. It didn’t help that neither our field, nor the philosophical milieu of my upbringing encouraged me to pay attention to sensory perceptions and emotional reactions to them – I couldn’t, imagine being a physicist, although others who grew up in the same circumstances have gone on to do exactly that. However, I have had a growing realization that acknowledging one’s own perceptions and reactions is important for one’s happiness and well-being. Given all the obstacles that people face to discovering who they truly are, it is important that there are more positive role models for them to look to.
Of course things have changed a lot over the last three decades. Our field, most universities in the west, and IT workplaces are friendly places for LGBT people. The way we view Turing’s personal life is evidence of this change. My own university was one of the earliest to set up an LGBT center, way back in 1982. It was also one of the first to offer domestic partner benefits and most recently, in a symbolically important gesture, it decided to “gross up”, i.e., to pay LGBT people more to offset the tax disadvantages they suffer on benefits to their partners. While Penn is on the leading edge of some of these changes, it seems clear that this is a trend that will sweep universities and research labs. Thus fear of the reaction at the workplace need no longer be a reason for people coming out of the closet.
There still remain the other obstacles – personal and social – and these are not so easy to overcome, especially for the many non-westerners in our field. How much of an embrace does one need from one’s friends and family? Or is acceptance in some form good enough? How does one withstand the pressure to marry? The homophobia of peers in school and college? In my time the elite technology institutes in India were male-dominated and unthinkingly homophobic. But here too things may be improving – a gay and lesbian group is thriving at IIT Bombay and it is celebrating its first birthday with more than 100 members, a majority of them on campus! Perhaps concomitantly, the number of female students on these campuses is increasing as well.
If only Turing were alive today …
Tonight thousands of San Franciscans and visitors took to the streets to celebrate (and many more will tomorrow) and today was Alan Turing’s hundredth birthday. Now, correlation does not imply causation, but at least some of the people on the streets dedicate the night to Turing, may he forever prove theorems and hook up with nineteen year olds in heaven.
[Günter M. Ziegler is a Geometer and Discrete Mathematician with interests in Topology, and a professor at the Freie Universität Berlin. Readers of in theory might know him as one of the authors of Proofs from THE BOOK. Tomorrow, Der Tagesspiegel, Berlin's leading newspaper, will publish a piece by Günter on Alan Turing. Since readers of in theory are awesome, they get to see it a day before, and in English. Please join me in thanking Günter for his lovely and personal contribution. -- L.T.]
calling you “Alan” is OK and appropriate, I hope? Mathematicians of your time used to be much more formal among each other, I know, but that has changed with time. And gays tend to be still less formal, so of course we’d be on first names basis nowadays. A kiss is a common form of greeting. Still, you are 6 years younger than both my grandfathers, 16 years older than my father. And you killed yourself before I had a chance to meet you, 11 years before I was born. You are so close, so far!
I know you (at least it feels like it!) from the biography “Alan Turing. The Enigma” by Andrew Hodges – I happened to come across it in the summer of 1987, right after finishing both my PhD and starting my coming-out at MIT. The cover of my paperback copy has an attention-grabbing blurb
The extraordinary story of the brilliant scientist who broke “Enigma,” Germany’s most secret World War II code, who pioneered the modern computer age, and who finally fell victim to the cold-war world of military secrets and sexual scandal.
My copy shows all signs of having been read intensively, its cover is worn, its binding starts to come apart, and some passages are underlined or marked. Thus, for example, I marked
“He had wanted the commenest in nature; he liked ordinary things. But he found himself to be an ordinary English homosexual atheist mathematician. It would not be easy“
on page 115.
“It would not be easy”? For me – an ordinary German homosexual atheist mathematician – it seemed easy: I was ambitious, a bit over-motivated, I got a lot of support, and I got a lot of freedom for my development. Yes, I had to work hard, but that was since Mathematics is a difficult subject, and also since of course I did not have your talent, but the difficulty of my subject was what had attracted me in the first place. But I never ran into any real problems because I was gay. I am grateful for the freedom and the support I got – and today, out of gratitude, I try to pass some of that on, to my students, to the greater University community, and to our graduate program, the “Berlin Mathematical School”, where I am the chair of the committee for “Mentoring, Gender and Diversity”.
You, in contrast, in 1952, became a victim of British laws and courts, as an openly gay man. They confronted you with the inhumane alternative “prison or chemical castration”. You chose the latter, an estrogen hormone therapy. You, the runner, who competed in qualification races for the marathon at the 1948 Olympic Games in London – now you were growing breasts. Depression. Suicide in 1954, a few days before your 42nd birthday.
This is how England treats her geniuses, her heroes? Only in 2009 Prime Minister Gordon Brown declared, under pressure from thousands of signatories of an internet petition, the apologies of the British government. A slightly pathetic “I am sorry, we are sorry”:
Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him.
So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.
Is this enough? Would you think that this is enough? Would you accept the apologies? Initiatives that ask for an official posthumous pardon, for the acknowledgment that the conviction as such was unjust, have not been successful up to now. A new internet petition to the British Government is on its way, up to now it drew nearly 35.000 signatures. A pardon? The verdict has to be: Not guilty! There was no crime!
Tomorrow, on Saturday, we celebrate your hundredth birthday. It is marked by activities around the globe. In Cambridge, England, where as an undergraduate student you wrote “On computable numbers”, they are having a “Turing Centenary Conference” this week. But this is a greeting and an invitation from Berlin, where we organized a huge party for you: The Berlin 2012 Gay Pride Parade, which we call “Christopher Street Day”, got a science motto “Wissen schafft Akzeptanz” in your honor. It’s your party, Alan! And indeed, also taking part in the parade, on float number 11, is the British Embassy!
Not only as an individual, and as a gay man, but also as a Professor of Mathematics at Freie Universität Berlin, the Berlin “Free University”, whose academic and personal liberties you never had the opportunity to enjoy, I take special pleasure in announcing the party, and to be part of it.
The 2012 Berlin Gay Pride Parade may be the largest birthday party for a Mathematician ever: we expect half a million participants. Alan, you deserve it.
Happy Birthday, Alan!
2012 The Alan Turing Year: www.turingcentenary.eu
Alan Turing Petition: submissions.epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/23526
Turing Centenary Conference, Cambridge, 18.-23. Juni 2012: www.cie2012.eu
Gay Pride Berlin: www.csd-berlin.de
[Irit Dinur is one of the leading complexity theorists of my (or any) generation, and she is best known for her work on probabilistically checkable proofs, including her combinatorial proof of the PCP theorem. I am very thankful for her post below. -- L.T.]
Turing’s tragic story — quite a disturbing trigger for talking about being gay in the TCS community. On one hand his story seems so distant and different from how things are for me today, but on the other hand, it is scary to think how recently it all took place; how closely related today’s culture is to that of Turing’s time, both scientifically and socially.
The fact is, that being gay in the TCS community is so easy and natural that I usually just don’t think about it. Sure, it would have been nice if there were a few more lesbians around; it would have been nice to not be the only one (that I know) in any workshop/conference/TCS event I’d ever been to. Even among the “gay colleagues” that Luca mentioned, being a woman makes me a minority within a minority. But I can’t really pin that on the TCS community. Our community has always felt like a very liberal and accepting place. Perhaps because many of us grew up as geeks, there’s a strong sense of resisting the exclusion of minorities in general.
In fact, my biggest sense of “coming-home” was not when I first started to go to gay parties or events, but when I first started undergrad as a math and CS major. That’s when I felt this amazing sense of being in the right place, and having lots of “my type” of friends. In that sense I align first with the TCS community and only then am I gay.
Writing this blog post made me want to talk to some gay and lesbian colleagues to hear their perspective and experiences. Can you guess how many of those there are? In all of Weizmann (not only CS) the number of gay colleagues that I am aware of is — zero. Perhaps it’s just me being clueless, but somehow I would have expected an institution with 250 faculty members to have more out gay people than that. Is it the age distribution? Among academic faculty the older generation is more dominant (percentage wise) than in other workplaces, and gay people in Israel were much more ”closeted” 10-15 years ago. If so, then hopefully this will naturally change within the next few years. I also hope that if more of us are more visibly out, this will help too.
The one area of life where my career and my being gay have been incompatible is when it comes to relocation. It is an integral and required part of our career path to spend some years abroad, often in the US, for postdoc, and later again for sabbaticals (although not mandatory at that stage). Many people don’t realize that being gay means that my partner and not-yet-legally-adopted children cannot get a J2 visa into the US on my behalf, which is how most non-gay scientists travel abroad with their families. This makes postdocs and later sabbaticals in the US much more difficult to arrange. I have been very fortunate to have gotten a lot of help from my TCS friends/colleagues, making my current sabbatical possible. I’m hoping that by the time for my next sabbatical this won’t even be necessary.
[I solicited essays from gay and lesbian colleagues on the occasion of the Turing centennial, and I was (pleasantly) surprised when Oded Goldreich offered a contribution too. Oded's essay is not very specific to the academic or computer science community, and he talks about topics that are probably "obvious" to gays and lesbians. On the other hand, maybe they are not so obvious to some readers, and so Oded's piece might be a good "introduction" to the posts that will comes later. On this note, you may also want to read this week's unusually good modern love piece. -- L.T]
I decided to contribute to this discussion of gays and lesbians (or rather LGBT) in academia (or rather in TCS/TOC) nowadays, because I think it will be wrong if only gay and lesbian colleagues will write about it. While I agree that this topic has more immediate implication on their life, it is a central social issue and as such it affects the life of each human and each human should be interested in it. The latter claim can be phrased in several ways including “nothing that is human is alien to me” and “no one is free while others are oppressed.”
I wish to address three related aspects of the topic, which I’ll call the “practical/life” aspect, the “cultural” aspect, and the “political” aspect. I consider all that I am about to say quite obvious and well-known (at least in some circles), but still believe that obvious things ought to be stated too.
THE PRACTICAL/LIFE ASPECT.
In a society that subscribes to ideologies that range between individualism to liberalism and humanism, a person’s sexual orientation should not be a social issue. But, of course, we know that this is and has been an issue in such societies, which demonstrates that these societies were and are far from what they pretend to be. In particular, severe forms of explicit oppression were a significant part of the life realities of LGBTs for several centuries, and softer forms of implicit oppression are still effecting the life of LGBT nowadays.
While it is true that attitudes towards LGBT have improved significantly in some societies and in some social groups, it is important to remember that (1) they improved less in other societies, (2) softer forms of oppression are still existing even in more progressive societies, and (3) the shadow of past centuries of oppression is not easy to brush off overnight.
THE CULTURAL ASPECT.
Historically, LGBT gave rise to a sub-culture (or a counter-culture), which has been very inspiring and carried a great emancipatory potential (in addition to being great fun and full of beauty). Let me use the term “queer culture” and align myself with it; that is, I view myself as queer. Let me also clarify that LGBT people are not necessarily queer nor should they be required to be queer. Still, I think I am allowed to advocate the queer culture.
The queer culture has great emancipatory potential because it is rooted in central aspects of its members lives and it couples these personal aspects with a rejection of some “dead” and dysfunctional aspects of the mainstream culture (e.g., the domination of instrumental rationalism (*) and the total division between life, beauty, and ideas). In other words, I am talking about a combination of a form (or culture) of life and a revolt against the existing order (and in particular its oppressive aspects). Indeed, this combination is a bridge between the personal and the political.
(*) By “instrumental rationality” I refer to confining rationality to low-level calculations of ends, while forgetting that a deeper sense of rationality calls for a critical reflection of the ends and purposes (rather than the non-critical and absent-minded conforming and adoptation of ends suggested by others). This is not unrelated to accepting a total division between real life on one hand, and ideas and beauty on the other hand, which makes life poor and the ideas and beauty deteched.
THE POLITICAL ASPECT.
The politics of LGBT face two possibilities. The first possibility is to join a coalition of oppressed people, which must include also the economically oppressed, and contribute to a deep social change in society. This is not an easy choice, because homophobic attitudes tend
to strive among the oppressed (since the dominant social groups promotes oppression, hatred, and fear among the oppressed themselves).
The second possibility is to focus on promoting its own interests, and remain neutral with respect to other forms of oppression. This is the easy choice, since the dominant social groups encourage the creation of various special interest groups that attempt to promote specific issues while not challenging the basic structures of society.
THE TOC/TCS ASPECT.
This brings us back to the life aspect, and my impression is that the TOC/TCS community is relatively LGBT-friendly. One may say that not being identified as gay, I would not have experienced negative reactions, but on the other hand it allows me to monitor what “straight” people say of gays. Recall that some LGBT are “out” in the TOC, and yet I never heard anything negative being said about this.
[Oded Goldreich has written a new essay, on taste, subjectivity, and scientific evaluation, and he tells us a bit about it. -- L.T.]
This is my third guest posting on this blog, and I think it is time I express my gratitude to Luca for allowing me to benefit from the popularity of his blog.
I believe that the current posting is far less controversial than the previous ones, although it does express opinions. But these opinions refer to very general questions that address central aspects of scientific evaluation.
The first question refers to the apparent conflict between the desire to view scientific evaluation as objective and the realization that it is inevitably subjective (since it is based on opinions — expert opinions). I argue that the same holds with respect to understanding, and that the subjective basis of both understanding and evaluation does not contradict their claim to universality (to the extent that such a claim can be made at all). Thus, I believe that the concerns regarding subjectivity are overrated.
The second main claim is that imagination plays (and must play) a significant role in the evaluation process. The point is that evaluating the importance of a work requires evaluating both its past and future influence on the field. Clearly, evaluating the work’s future influence requires imagination (i.e., imagining the future development of the field). However, also evaluating past influence requires imagination, since one may need to imagine the state of the field without this work in order to realize which developments were influenced by it (and to what extent).
The third question refers to the role of personal taste in scientific evaluation. I claim that this role is grossly overrated, and that almost all that is attributed to taste is actually not a matter of taste (provided that one uses a reasonable definition of taste).
The essay, titled “On Scientific Evaluation and its relation to Understanding, Imagination, and Taste”, is available from my web-page.