“A Great science fiction detective story”
- Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine
Days to Centenary: 75
In my last post I noted that this year´s Manchester Pride Festival will have the theme ‘Queer’d Science’ in honour of Alan Turing.
I cited a few other examples of LGBT scientists, intending to finish posting my prepared list of scientific luminaries in today´s post. Then, in the Turing Centenary Twitter feed, I asked if people wanted to suggest any names. I´m going to put the rest of my list on hold so I can focus on two responses I got.
The first response I got had nothing in particular to do with discrimination against today´s LGBT scientists (that part´s further down the page) — it just happens to involve two fascinating gay men who were scientists by trade. One had a scientific life that was entirely distinct from his work, while for the other his work and his orientation were all part of a whole.
I´ve never met @RalfBuelow (he´s in Germany and I´m in Brazil), but we´ve had at least one good conversation and he´s got an awesome web site called Retro-Futurismus.
He suggested two names: American Richard Montague (1930–1971) and German Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935), both choices that were not on my original list and each interesting in its own way.
Montague was an accomplished mathematician and philosopher working in logic and set theory. In 1971 he was strangled to death in his home in a murder that is still unsolved. Montague had apparently brought several people home from a bar one evening and then was killed by one or more of them.
His life and murder were the foundation for no fewer than three novels: The Semantics of Murder (by Aifric Campbell), Less Than Meets the Eye (by David Berlinski, about whom more below), and The Mad Man (by Hugo- and Nebula-winning gay science fiction master Samuel R. Delaney). You can find an article on some of Montague´s fictional incarnations here.
In his book Black Mischief: Language, Life, Logic, Luck, Berlinski gives a portrait of a Montague as a man of provocative wit:
Richard Montague was a small, very dapper, compact, cufflink of a character. He was dressed in a neat blue suit, a snowy white shirt, and a matching crimson tie. We had met for drinks in mid-town Manhattan—he, Daniel Gallin, and I. His hands, I noticed, were square, the fingernails manicured and covered with a clear polish. A logician by profession, Montague had a reputation for great technical brilliance. His papers were adroit, carefully written, biting, and completely beyond the intellectual grasp of all but a handful of analytic philosophers.
We talked of taxes and politics and how on Earth do you survive in this place—meaning New York. Then the discussion turned to mathematics and Montague cheered up. He had just commenced his research program into formal grammars and had published a series of papers of truly monstrous technicality. He liked to imagine that he and Chomsky were rivals. “There are,” he said, “two great frauds in the history of twentieth-century science. One of them is Chomsky.”
I reached for the peanuts.
“And the other?”
“Albert Einstein,” Montague said decisively, glad that I had asked.
I´ve included Berliner´s account here because it´s entertaining, but frankly if Berliner told me the sky was blue I´d double check. He´s an advocate of the ¨theory¨ of intelligent design who works for the Discovery Institute, a right-wing, ostensibly Christian,
advocacy organization think tank which argues that there is a controversy among scientists over the accuracy of the theory of evolution, which there isn´t in any meaningful sense. I´m just sayin´.
Magnus Hirschfeld was a physician and a gay man and was one of the earliest advocates for sexual minorities. Erie Gay News summarizes his work:
In 1919, Hirschfeld founded the Institute for Sexual Research, which housed a vast library on sexuality and the Museum of Sex, provided educational services and resources, and offered medical consultations. The same year, he produced the film “Different From the Others,” likely the first gay film.
In 1921, Hirschfeld organized the First Congress for Sexual Reform, during which the World League for Sexual Reform (WLSR) was formed. Touring internationally, he promoted the WLSR and its goals. At its peak, the WLSR boasted 130,000 members worldwide.
With the rise of the Nazi Party, Hirschfeld came under attack both politically and personally. On May 6, 1933, while Hirschfeld was abroad, a mob of students and storm troopers raided the Institute for Sexual Research. They burned books, journals and other materials in a bonfire to cleanse the city of “un-German” materials.
Exiled, Hirschfeld settled in Nice, France, and died two years later. He left a legacy of innovative research and advocacy.
San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown declared May 14 — which was his birthday and also the date of his death — “Magnus Hirschfeld Day” in recognition of his contributions to sexual emancipation.
Left: A cartoon mocking Hirschfeld for his activism, Right: Nazis raid the Institute (images from Homocaust web site)
The Price Paid: the Scientific Closet
The other response came from @alanturingreads and deals directly with the current state of the scientific closet.
She drew my attention to an article from Science Careers (a publication of Science) entitled”Closeted Discoverers: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Scientists,” which makes it clear that LGBT people working in the sciences must still frequently closet themselves for the sake of their careers to a degree that is sobering.
On the brighter side, the article does chart some of the progress that´s been made in the career prospects of science-oriented members of the LGBT community.
It highlights Out to Innovate, “A Career Summit for LGBT Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Students and Professionals.” On the one hand it´s a shame that in the 21st century something like OTI is still necessary — on the other hand, given that it´s necessary, it´s good to see it happening.
A highlight reel from the 2010 Out to Innovate is embedded below.