Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Discarded genius

Way back in 1952, British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing proposed a mathematical model to account for pattern formation that results in (seemingly) random patches -- something observed in as disparate manifestations as leopard spots and the growth patterns of desert plants.

Proving that this model accurately reflected what was going on, however, was more difficult.  It wasn't until three months ago that an elegant experiment using thinly-spread chia seeds on a moisture-poor growth medium showed that Turing's model predicted the patterns perfectly.

"In previous studies,” said study co-author Brendan D’Aquino, who presented the research at the March meeting of the American Physical Society, "people kind of retroactively fit models to observe Turing patterns that they found in the world.  But here we were actually able to show that changing the relevant parameters in the model produces experimental results that we would expect."

Honestly, it shouldn't have been surprising.  Turing's genius was unparalleled; the "Turing pattern" model is hardly the only brainchild of his that is still bearing fruit, almost seventy years after his death.  His research on the halting problem -- figuring out if it is possible to determine ahead of time whether a computer program designed to prove the truth or falsity of mathematical theorems will reach a conclusion in a finite number of steps -- generated an answer of "no" and a paper that mathematician Avi Wigderson called "easily the most influential math paper in history."  Turing's work in cryptography is nothing short of mind-blowing; he led the research that allowed the deciphering of the incredibly complex code produced by Nazi Germany's Enigma machine, a feat that was a major contribution to Germany's defeat in 1945.

A monument to Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, where the cryptographic team worked during World War II [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Antoine Taveneaux, Turing-statue-Bletchley 14, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Turing's colleague, mathematician and cryptographer Peter Hilton, wrote the following about him:
It is a rare experience to meet an authentic genius.  Those of us privileged to inhabit the world of scholarship are familiar with the intellectual stimulation furnished by talented colleagues.  We can admire the ideas they share with us and are usually able to understand their source; we may even often believe that we ourselves could have created such concepts and originated such thoughts.  However, the experience of sharing the intellectual life of a genius is entirely different; one realizes that one is in the presence of an intelligence, a sensibility of such profundity and originality that one is filled with wonder and excitement.  Alan Turing was such a genius, and those, like myself, who had the astonishing and unexpected opportunity, created by the strange exigencies of the Second World War, to be able to count Turing as colleague and friend will never forget that experience, nor can we ever lose its immense benefit to us.

Hilton's words are all the more darkly ironic when you find out that two years after the research into pattern formation, Turing committed suicide at the age of 41.

His slide into depression started in January 1952, when his house was burgled.  The police, while investigating the burglary, found evidence that Turing was in a relationship with another man, something that was illegal in the United Kingdom at the time.  In short order Turing and his lover were both arrested and charged with gross indecency.  After a short trial in which Turing refused to argue against the charges, he was found guilty, and avoided jail time if he agreed to a hormonal treatment nicknamed "chemical castration" designed to destroy his libido.

It worked.  It also destroyed his spirit.  The "authentic genius" who helped Britain win the Second World War, whose contributions to mathematics and computer science are still the subject of fruitful research today, poisoned himself to death in June of 1954 because of the actions taken against him by his own government.

How little we've progressed in seven decades.

Here in the United States, state after state are passing laws discriminating against queer people, denying gender-affirming care to trans people, legislating what is and is not allowable based not upon any real concrete harm done, but on thinly-veiled biblical moralism.  The result is yet another generation growing up having to hide who they are lest they face the same kind of soul-killing consequences Alan Turing did back in the early 1950s.

People like Florida governor Ron DeSantis and Texas governor Greg Abbott, who have championed this sort of legislation, seem blind to the consequences.  Or, more likely, they know the consequences and simply don't give a damn how many lives this will cost.  Worse, some of their allies actually embrace the potential death toll.  At the Conservative Political Action Conference in March, Daily Wire host Michael Knowles said, "For the good of society… transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.  The whole preposterous ideology, at every level."

No, Michael, there is no "ism" here.  It's not an "ideology;" it's not a political belief or a religion.  What you are saying is "eradicate transgender people."  You are advocating genocide, pure and simple.

And so, tacitly, are the other people who are pushing anti-LGBTQ+ laws.  Not as blatantly, perhaps, but that's the underlying message.  They don't want queer people to be quiet; they want us erased.

I can speak first-hand to how devastating it is to be terrified to have anyone discover who you are.  I was in the closet for four decades out of shame, not to mention fear of the consequences of being out.  When I was 54 I finally said "fuck it" and came out to friends and family; I came out publicly -- here at Skeptophilia, in fact -- five years after that.  

I'm one of the lucky ones.  I had nearly uniform positive responses.

But if I lived in Florida or Texas?  Or in my home state of Louisiana?  I doubt very much whether I'd have had the courage to speak my truth.  The possibility of dire consequences would have very likely kept me silent.  In Florida, especially -- I honestly don't know how any queer people or allies are still willing to live there.  I get that upping stakes and moving simply isn't possible for a lot of people, and that even if they could all relocate, that's tantamount to surrender.  But still.  Given the direction things are going, it's a monumental act of courage simply to stay there and continue to fight.

It's sickening that we are still facing these same battles.  Haven't we learned anything from the example of a country that discarded the very genius who helped them to defeat the Nazis, in the name of some warped puritanical moralism? 

This is no time to give up out of exhaustion, however, tempting though it is.  Remember Turing, and others like him who suffered (and are still suffering) simply because of who they are.  Keep speaking up, keep voting, and keep fighting.  And remember the quote -- of uncertain origin, though often misattributed to Edmund Burke -- "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing."


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