What a difference thirty years make

From the majority opinions of two rulings of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Bowers v. Hardwick (1986):

The Constitution does not confer a fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy. […] to claim that a right to engage in such conduct is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” or “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty” is, at best, facetious.

Obergefell v. Hodges (2015)

[Same-sex couples] ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The Constitution […] does not permit the State to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex.

On Paul Erdos and Kim Kardashian

This year is the centennial of Paul Erdős’s birth. Erdős lived most of his adult life as a traveling mathematician, “couchsurfing,” as we would say now, from place to place and from mathematical conference to mathematical conference. He wrote more than 1,500 papers with more than 500 different coauthors, introduced the probabilistic method and was the defining figure of the “Hungarian approach” to combinatorics. He died at age 83 while attending a mathematical conference.

Last year, we celebrated the centennial of Alan Turing’s birth. Turing and Erdős have become such iconic figures both for the impact of their work and for the fascinating facts of their lives. I would like to argue that the cultural archetype through which we interpret their lives is that of the saint. It is clearly that of the martyr saint in the case of Turing, while Erdős gave up material possessions and devoted his life to others, traveling everywhere and “preaching” to everybody, much in the mold of Saint Francis.

(A comparison of the Turing centennial celebration and Erdős’s, and a look at the frescoes of Medieval Catholic churches will show which kind of saint people are more interested in.)

The first step to become a saint of the Catholic church is to establish that the person exhibited “heroic virtues,” which is a great expression. This is an archetype that is not restricted to religion: you see it occurring in communist propaganda (Stakhanov, Lei Feng) and in every civil rights movement.

Saints were the “celebrities” of the Middle Ages, those whose life people liked to talk about. But contemporary celebrities come from a totally different archetype, that of the Greek God. Greek (and Roman) gods were petty and jealous, they cheated on their spouses, they were terrible parents, but there were good stories to be told about them. We don’t want (at least, I don’t) to live the life of a saint, but thinking about them is certainly inspirational and it makes us think that if someone can be so much better than us, maybe we can be a little better ourself in the practice of “virtues”, whatever this may mean to us. And we don’t admire gods, but, well, it’s probably fun to be one.

As usual, I have lost track of what I was trying to say, but I think that it speaks well of the academic community that we are more interested in saints than in gods, I will close by saying that my favorite saint of complexity theory is Avi Wigderson, I will keep to myself who my favorite god of complexity theory is, and I will leave it to the readers to contribute their picks.

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.