Nabihah Rahman


The month of February is LGBT+ History Month, a time that aims to promote equality and diversity for the benefit of the public. One of the ways in which this is done is by increasing the visibility of LGBTQ+ people, their history, their lives, and their experiences in the culture of educational and other institutions1. The Imperial Physics Review ardently encourages the observance of this month; we acknowledge the significance of promoting diversity within STEM fields, especially the amazing impact it can have in inspiring people who have historically been under-represented in the sciences to truly pursue their scientific aspirations. In this article, we commemorate the achievements of four notable LGBT figures who have made wonderful contributions in mathematics, physics, and computer science.  

Alan Turing
Turing, Alan
Alan Turing, a gay mathematician and computer scientist [3].

Alan Turing is considered to be one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century, as his mathematical ability led to many accomplishments being made in his lifetime [2]. He is perhaps most prominently known for his work at Bletchley Park during WWII; he successfully worked in a team to break the Enigma machine that was so critical for Nazi communications, and effectively saved the lives of what is estimated to be millions. His later work involved designing one of the first electronic computers at the National Physical Laboratory and being a founding father of artificial intelligence, proposing the Turing test as a criterion for whether a computer thinks like a human [3]. Despite all his wonderful accomplishments, Turing was ultimately convicted for his identity as a gay man, and was subject to a cruel hormonal treatment. Two years later, he tragically committed suicide [2]. Turing’s work and legacy is unparalleled; his work has so much relevance to this day and he has very much shaped the entire landscape of computer science. We now widely celebrate these achievements as well as accept and celebrate the fact that he was gay. The ‘Alan Turing law’ came into power in 2017, which pardons all those that were cautioned or convicted for homosexual acts [4].

Angela Clayton
Angela Clayton, a transgender physicist and advocate for transgender rights.

Angela Clayton was an internationally recognised physicist who worked primarily in the fields of nuclear criticality safety and health physics. Over the course of her career, she was part of several organisations, dedicating herself to the subjects of criticality safety with a consistent aim of ensuring that the ‘right thing’ was done [5]. One of her most notable roles include being Head of Criticality Safety at the Atomic Weapons Establishment, after having a great involvement in several safety committees and being on the Reactor Safety Panel. Outside of her work as a physicist, Clayton was a passionate advocate for transgender rights, identifying as a transgender woman herself. In 2002, she became the first ‘trans observer’ for the UK Trades Union Congress LGBT Committee, working to promote equality for transgender people in the workplace. Her involvement in the development of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act enabled trans people living in Britain a legal recognition of their gender identity – a crucial piece of legislation in LGBT+ history [5]. Her service to gender issues later made her an MBE, which is a very well-deserved title indeed.

Peter Landin
Peter Landin, a bisexual computer scientist and advocate for gay rights [7].

Peter Landin may not have a feature film about himself (yet) like Alan Turing does, but he too made amazing strides in the field of computer science during the twentieth century. Landin had a wonderful burst of creativity during the 1950s and 60s, when he noticed that programs could be defined in terms of mathematical functions; he then went further to use the lambda calculus to model a programming language [6]. In the early days of computing, this discovery was pivotal: Landin effectively presented that the meaning of a computer program could be derived from mathematical logic and become independent of the make of the computer (i.e. programming languages could be used universally) [7]. Outside of his staggeringly insightful academic work, Landin became involved with the Gay Liberation Front in the 1970s and demonstrated a great deal of pride for his bisexual identity. Not only did he partake in many protests, but it is also believed that he played a role in reinvigorating Gay Pride marches in the mid-1980s. This occurred just in time to oppose the UK’s Clause 28, which sought to essentially ban teaching in schools about the ‘acceptability of homosexuality’ [8].

Sally Ride
Sally Ride, a lesbian astronaut and physicist [10].

Sally Ride made her mark on history as an astronaut and physicist, being the first American woman and first lesbian to go to space [9]. In June 1983, she flew on the Challenger shuttle, having been chosen for this specific mission because she had helped develop a robotic arm for the shuttle [10]. Spending around a week in space, she was able to use the arm to deploy and retrieve a satellite. When the shuttle landed, she described it as “the most fun [she’ll] ever have in [her] life” [11], which doubtlessly inspired many young girls to have ambitions to go into space. Unfortunately, her third flight on board the Challenger was immediately cancelled upon the tragic incident of the shuttle exploding after taking off from Cape Canaveral in 1986. Ride was appointed by President Ronald Raegan to be part of a panel investigating the horrific accident. Her integrity truly shone through during this investigation, as she strongly supported an engineer who had been shunned for revealing that the O-rings could fail [10]. Her later career admirably involved inspiring young girls to pursue STEM subjects, truly making her legacy one that has and always will be an inspiration to any aspiring female astronaut.

Author’s Note

You’ve probably noticed that the four LGBT figures I’ve discussed in this article are limited in the sense that they do not span the full LGBTQ+ spectrum and not a single person is from a BAME background. It is unfortunate, but the struggles that people of these groups have had to face throughout history has led to few of these people being able to fully pursue their scientific passions. Those that have been able to have careers in the sciences have not been met without obstacles due to their identities, and their research and discoveries may have been heavily overlooked. Because of this, I hope that you may be inspired to do some further reading on LGBTQ+ figures (who are perhaps also from a BAME background) in academia and industry, which would be a perfect way of observing LGBT+ History Month. You could even take it a step further and write articles about the interesting people you’ve learned about for the Imperial Physics Review – we would all love to read about it! We currently live in an age where progress is being made to make academia more inclusive, and it is amazing to see the scientific community becoming more diverse – something that I only hope blossoms further in the future.


References

[1] LGBT+ History Month. 2021. About – LGBT+ History Month. [online] Available from: https://lgbtplushistorymonth.co.uk/about/ [Accessed 29 January 2021]. 

[2] The New York Times. 2021. Overlooked No More: Alan Turing, Condemned Code Breaker and Computer Visionary (Published 2019). [online] Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/05/obituaries/alan-turing-overlooked.html [Accessed 29 January 2021].

[3] Copeland, B.J. 2020. Alan Turing. Encyclopedia Britannica. [online] Available from: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alan-Turing [Accessed 29 January 2021]. 

[4] BBC News. 2016. ‘Alan Turing law’: Thousands of gay men to be pardoned. [online] Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-37711518 [Accessed 29 January 2021]. 

[5] LGBT+ History Month. 2014. Obituary – Angela Clayton MBE. [online] Available at: https://lgbtplushistorymonth.co.uk/2014/01/obituary-angela-clayton-mbe/ [Accessed 30 January 2021].

[6] Bornat, R. 2009. Peter Landin: a computer scientist who inspired a generation. Higher-Order and Symbolic Computation, 22(4), pp.295-298.

[7] Bornat, R. 2009. Peter Landin Obituary. The Guardian. [online] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2009/sep/22/peter-landin-obituary [Accessed 30 January 2021].  

[8] Day, H. 2019. Section 28: What was it and how did it affect LGBT+ people? BBC. [online] Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/cacc0b40-c3a4-473b-86cc-11863c0b3f30 [Accessed 30 January 2021]. 

[9] Moskowitz, C. 2014. The Real Sally Ride: Astronaut, Science Champion and Lesbian. Scientific American. [online] Available from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/recommended-the-real-sally-ride-astronaut-science-champion-and-lesbian/ [Accessed 31 January 2021].

[10] NASA. 2014. Who was Sally Ride? [online] Available from: https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/k-4/stories/nasa-knows/who-was-sally-ride-k4.html [Accessed 31 January 2021]

[11] Grady, D. 2012. American Woman Who Shattered Space Ceiling. The New York Times. [online] Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/24/science/space/sally-ride-trailblazing-astronaut-dies-at-61.html [Accessed 31 January 2021].