Turing Centennial Post 2: Günter Ziegler

[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.]

Dear Alan,

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

Günter Ziegler

7 thoughts on “Turing Centennial Post 2: Günter Ziegler

  1. I suppose the apology is better than not doing it, but I have two issues with it

    1) What about other gay people in England who were unjustly punished
    in some way in that era. They don’t get an apology since they are not famous enough.

    2) Apologies like this always come way way after everyone who could possible be held accountable is dead.

  2. To me, personally, there’s something very satisfying about this apology: the awkwardness of it, the fact that its wording actually hides the subtext “I guess we are apologizing right now, but it’s a bit weird to apologize for primitive idiots that have done these things, and whose world view in this matter is so foreign to our own”. In other words, the sheer weirdness of this apology is the thing that makes me feel good about it: apologizing for the mistreatment that Turing suffered is akin to apologizing for medieval witch-burning. There are still many ways in which LGBT people are mistreated in the world, and these need to be corrected, but the fact that the policy-makers and public opinion in most modern countries are so far from their counterpart of 60 years ago is something to be proud of.

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