Thursday, 20 June 2013

1 + 1 = 1

It’s surprising how many mathematicians and computer scientists there are who are partners of others. It’s not so obvious in the other sciences. So today I’ll bring you 8 people who prove that 1 (mathematician) plus 1 (mathematician) equals 1 (couple).

The first couple are more of an “alleged couple” than a self-acknowledged one. They are Soviet mathematicians Andrei Kolmogorov (1903-1987) and Pavel Aleksandrov (1896-1982). Both men were living at a time and in a country where homosexuality was illegal. Their relationship, or friendship, began in 1929 when they went on a 3-week boat trip together down several European rivers.

Aleksandrov was topologist, a mathematician who studies shapes, forms and spaces, and was Professor of Mathematics at Moscow University. Kolmogorov was more interested in logic and virtually invented probability theory (which, ironically, sums up the common view of their relationship – it’s a probability theory by itself!).

In 1935 Aleksandrov and Kolmogorov bought a house in Moscow and they lived there together until Aleksandrov’s death in 1982. Although neither admitted their sexuality publicly, there were rumours floating around the Soviet Union for decades, and other Soviet mathematicians have said that they believed they were both gay. It seemed to be an open secret, known even by Stalin himself. Today the nature of their relationship is disputed, stating that Kolmogorov was married, but we shall see next that is no proof of heterosexuality. My own opinion is that there is enough to suggest they did have some form of romantic attachment which may, or not may not, have been physical.

One of Kolmogorov’s students links directly to an undoubtedly open gay mathematical couple – Robert MacPherson (b.1944) and Mark Goresky (b.1950). In 1977 MacPherson was approached by Kolmogorov’s  former student. Through him MacPherson got to know many Moscow mathematicians and visited them in the USSR regularly. However, Soviet maths was not freely available in the West because the over-suspicious authorities were always looking for coded political messages or state secrets in research papers submitted for publication. MacPherson continually smuggled maths research papers out of Moscow for anonymous publication in the West.

Things got worse for Russian mathematicians after the collapse of the USSR. Mathematicians and academics found it difficult to find work in the economic crisis which followed. The state had no money for maths or research. MacPherson persuaded the American Mathematical Society to start a fund to help the struggling mathematicians.

But MacPherson has been more than a maths philanthropist. With his partner Mark Goresky he discovered intersection homology, another of those complicated ideas you find in topology. MacPherson and Mark met in 1971 when Mark began as a graduate at Brown University, Rhode Island, USA, where MacPherson taught. Both men were married, but there was a chemistry between them that began almost immediately. After collaborating on the intersection homology paper the two went their separate ways, but both of their marriages began to break up soon afterwards. In 1985 they realised they were in love and they’ve been together ever since.

My next two couples are involved with the computer sciences and information technology. Ladies first.

The world of information technology and Silicon Valley often conjures up images of men in white lab coats. One female couple who are among the most powerful in IT are Megan Smith (b.1964) and Kara Swisher (b.1962). Megan is currently a vice president at Google, which she joined in 2003. She earned both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree at MIT in mechanical engineering and serves on MIT’s board. In April this year, and last year, Megan was named in “Out” magazine’s Power List of the USA’s 50 most powerful and influential lgbt people.

In 2008 Megan married Kara Swisher, a technology columnist. Their marriage was timed deliberately to be held the day before California voters overturned the same-sex marriage law that their courts had approved just 5 months beforehand.

Kara has been writing on technology issues for the Wall Street Journal for several years, and co-founded the online journal “All Things Digital” with Walt Mossberg. Even though she is married to a Google executive Kara has not shied away from criticising the company or it’s policies. In 2012 placed Megan and Kara in it’s “18 Hottest Power Couples in Technology”, the only same-sex couple on the list.

Finally, when it comes to global communications, one gay couple has played key roles. In fact we would probably not be able to use computers for work or send emails without their contribution. Their names are Kirk McKusick (b.1954) and Eric Allman (b.1955).

Eric and Kirk have also been referred to as a “power couple”. Kirk, having a degree in electrical engineering and a PhD in computer science, worked in the 1980s as project manager at the University of California, Berkeley, on a way for computers to locate and recall saved and closed files. We take that for granted these days.

Eric worked on an early example of something else we take for granted. Also working in the 1980s Eric developed a programme which could send messages and documents from one computer to another. He called it Sendmail. Over the years he developed the programme, and it became the forerunner of toady’s emails.

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