In Theory Celebrates the Turing Centennial

This year there are several festivities on the occasion of Turing‘s 100th birthday, which is next month, including the celebration that took place in Princeton a couple of weeks ago, the ACM-organized event next month, several events at the Newton institute in the UK, and several other events all over the world. Most of Turing centennial initiatives have taken the form of lectures and articles describing how far we have (or not) gone since Turing’s time in our understanding of computation.

Certainly, a big part of Turing’s life was being gay, which was not exceptional among leading British mathematicians of his time, or even among founding fathers of theoretical computer science, although his way of being “out” was (like his research) much ahead of its time.

(I think all readers of in theory are familiar with the story of how Turing’s openness led to his tragic death: after a robbery in his home, Turing told the police that he suspected that a certain 19 year old guy who had been in his home was involved in the robbery; after telling the police the nature of his relationship with said guy, Turing was arrested and prosecuted; despite the intervention of highly-placed people who were aware of the importance of his work, Turing was found guilty and, while he avoided jail time, he was sentenced to a “hormonal therapy” that was a sort of chemical castration, and he lost his security clearance. Shortly afterward he committed suicide by poisoning and eating an apple.)

Within the Turing festivities, I think it would be interesting to talk about how things have changed (or not) since Turing’s time for people who do academic work in cryptography and in the theory of computing and who are gay or lesbian.

So I have invited a number of gay and lesbian colleagues to write guest posts talking about how things have been for them, and so far half a dozen have tentatively accepted. Their posts will appear next month which, besides being Turing’s centennial month, also happens to be the anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

Those who have agreed to participate are a diverse bunch, male and female, junior and senior, and working or coming from the Americas, Europe and Asia.

But I would still be delighted to have additional contributors. The posts could be signed or pseudonymous, personal or political, anecdotal or philosophical, and basically about anything. Explaining why you reject the premise of having such posts in the first place would also be an acceptable topic. I would be particularly happy to have contributors currently working in Asia or Southern Europe. Email me (trevisan at stanford) if you are interested.

16 thoughts on “In Theory Celebrates the Turing Centennial

  1. Whow. This is exciting. Both for a long-time reader of this blog, and in general in the TCS community. Politics, real politics, is almost never discussed in the open. The announcement itself made my day.

  2. Yes, I think this is a great project. As a member of our community who doesn’t really think about these issues often (both because I am not gay or lesbian, and because I am generally pretty clueless) I would be very interested in hearing about what it has been like to be a gay/lesbian member of our community. I’ll be looking forward to these posts.

  3. Pingback: Celebrations in Bar-Ilan, HU, and the Technion; A new blog: Windows on Theory; Turing’s celebration on “In Theory”; Graph Limits in Princeton | Combinatorics and more

  4. You may be as tolerant towards homosexuality as you please, but the fact is that not until long ago, and surely since the decline of the Roman empire, it was considered as being something disgusting, immoral and obscene. I trust more the old point of view than your new progressive one and it insults me that you put labels of homosexuality on people you did not know (based on Wikipedia articles?). What do you know about the nature of friendship among men in cultures other than your western contemporary one? Do you really think that a deep friendship between men necessarily involves transgressions of the Greek-Roman type? This reminds me of the thesis once heard about the “real nature” of relations among king David and the son of Saul Jonathan, based on the phrase “Your love to me was more wonderful than the love of women”.

    And by the way, why do you avoid so much to use the word “homosexuals”?

  5. It is not clear what the anonymous of June 8th means by “I trust more…”?
    Is “trust” a replacement to “prefer”? And if so, why refer to history and/or to present views when stating one’s own preferance?

    The current tolerance wrt “homosexuality”, alike the tolerance to numerous other varieties of human life aspects, is based on deep respect to humanity, which involves recognition of the individual autonomy. This is linked to the traditions of enlightenment, liberalism, and modernity (which all make claims to universality…). I am recalling the traditional roots of these attitudes not as a proof of their correctness, but rather as an indications that these attitudes are based on long traditions of extensive thought and reflection. (Of course, one may disagree with these, but I think it would be a great mistake to think that they are all superficial fashions.)

    As to speculations on the “homosexuality” of past people, such are typically presented as illustrations. It is indeed anachronistic to analyze people who lived in one time (or culture) by the standards of a different time (or culture). But, by the same token, it would be wrong to base an argument re “heterosexuality” on refer4ence to “heterosexuality” of past generations.


  6. Dear Goded,

    The elite might have arguments for their beliefs, but the general public’s acceptance of such beliefs is not much different from the way the general public accepted directly opposite beliefs. Clearly a liberal intellect can argue like you, but remember that the change in the general public attitude in recent decades – the change is not so old after all – is largely the result of huge amount of money spent by advocates. The elite might have argument for their beliefs, but the way general public accepts such beliefs is very similar to the way general public accepted directly opposite beliefs, they are not based on “the traditions of enlightenment, liberalism, and modernity”.

  7. Tolerance towards LGBT *is* a direct logical consequences of values
    that are central to enlightenment, liberalism and modernity. The fact
    that this logical implication was and missed in the past (and is missed
    also by many today) is not unrelated to existing social structures
    (which include contradictory values…).

    The traditions of enlightenment, liberalism and modernity were
    also promoted by elites, and the same holds for any set of values
    in any social culture. This included the “traditional values”,
    the Christian values, the former Roman values, acient Greek values etc.
    The view that homophobia is a “natural” tendency of people rather than
    a social construct, which owes much of its existence to the actions
    of social agents (esp., elites) is utterly naive.

  8. I have to disagree. There is nothing social that is a direct logical consequence of values of some world view. The influential social actors and social norms always play a significant role in determining the attitudes of societies.

    I didn’t imply any attitude is the “natural” tendency of people. The goal was to object to the view that the current general (non-elite) social attitude in our culture is a direct consequence of the values associated with enlightenment, liberalism and modernity; that it is a permanent state that rationality would direct us. In a half a century the attitude can change drastically again and if it does it will not be a result of people becoming “irrational” or forgetting the views and arguments promoted by LGTB activists. Most of the beliefs held by ordinary people at any time are not based on rationality or well-thought. Lots of them are consequence of flowing the groups’ norms that the individual belongs to. The current American society with all it free flow information is a good example of how large parts of a modern society can held completely irrational views.

    I do not think anyone can seriously claim that modern humans are rational entities after the events of WWII. Psychological and sociological studies show that group norms have a strong effect on determining people’s behavior and attitudes and rational thinking does not play the significant role attributed to it. A belief or attitude may have a rational base in enlightenment, liberalism and modernity, but that is not why ordinary people accept it.

  9. I wouldn’t be totally surprised had I learned that *both* of the last two comments were written by Oded

  10. I wish first to “protest” towards the moose for suggesting
    that I could have written the 11th comment. (But I assume
    it was a joke, still letr me answer:) The agenda one promotes
    is far more important than the arguments one proposed.

    As to the writer of Comment Nr 11 — of course, logic and rationality
    do not move things, but still ideas do play a role in the complex things
    that happen in society. Now, in comment (Nr 7), you (or somebody else)
    suggested that tolerant towards LGBT is superficial and an artifact
    of a well funded campaign, and that homophobia is to be preferred.
    In that context, I briefly commented that this tolerance is in no
    way superficial but rather well rooted in central traditions of
    the western culture in the last couple of decades. Of course, this
    fact was not enough to bring about a social change. For that, there
    was a need for a social movement, which used various resources
    including “abstract/ideological” ones (i.e., the fact that tolerance
    in central to the said traditions). What will happen in 50 years
    is hard to predict, but my clear guess is that tolerance towards LGBT
    will increase rather than decrease.


  11. anonymous at June 8 said: “You may be as tolerant towards homosexuality as you please, but the fact is that not until long ago, and surely since the decline of the Roman empire, it was considered as being something disgusting, immoral and obscene.”

    You certainly know that being brown- or black- skinned was also concerned “disgusting” and was thought of as some kind of cosmic punishment for some kind of cosmic crime, for most of the same period of history. Now, I am pretty sure (or at least I’d like to be sure, being “brown” myself) that in this case, you don’t “trust more the old point of view than [Luca’s] new progressive one”. Are there any reasons you don’t apply the same “we know better now” yardstick to homosexuality?

  12. Pingback: Turing Centennial Series from In Theory blog | Healthy Algorithms

  13. Pingback: Call for Research-Life Stories « Windows On Theory

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