Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Black Scientists for History Month

In celebration of the US Black History Month here are some black lgbt scientists and mathematicians. I have been unable to find a group or organisation specifically for black lgbt scientists, though there are several for black scientists in general, and it is believed in scientific circles that there are many who are not out. However, I have selected the following to illustrate the variety of subjects where black scientists have made, and are still making, a contribution.

First and foremost is George Washington Carver (d.1943), perhaps the only black scientist known outside science circles. Perhaps you’ve never hear of him until now, but I bet you’ve eaten something he developed. In fact, his life is so full and varied that it seems more appropriate to feature him in one of my Extraordinary Lives series. Which is exactly what I’m going to do later this month, so sorry if I’m leaving you in tenterhooks!

Born over a hundred years before George Washington Carver was Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806). Having been born in the age of slavery Benjamin was fortunate in actually having been born a free man. Like Carver after him, Benjamin left little real evidence of his sexuality and historians have suggested the probability that both were closeted gay men. Both came from an era, country and ethnic community in which homosexuality wasn’t accepted. There were multiple prejudices against them. However, there was no intolerance when it came to their skills.

Like most pre-Industrial Revolution scientists, Benjamin didn’t specialise in any specific subject. Mathematics was the basis of most sciences in those days. Benjamin used his great mathematical mind to show off his mechanic skills. He built a clock made entirely out of wood – cogs and wheels included. It was perfect, and kept time from the day he constructed it at the age of 22 to over 40 years later.

Among Benjamin’s other achievements was the compiling of an almanac of dates and calendars, mainly for the agriculture industry. He even predicted an eclipse without the use of pre-published tables. The biggest physical legacy he left behind is the layout of present day Washington DC. After the original city architect stormed off in a huff with all the plans Benjamin managed to reproduce them all from memory in 2 days. Otherwise another architect would have been brought in to draw up new plans.

Benjamin is now regarded as the first African-American scientist, and possibly also the USA’s first native-born lgbt scientist. Today there are many lgbt black scientists, but few of them are not, believing they are the still subject to double-discrimination.

This has been the experience of Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist who found that both her sexuality and race were the subject of questions when she was interviewed for a postdoctoral research position. Being a woman also brought her triple discrimination in her chosen subject. Today Chanda is at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

One black scientist who has done well in his chosen career is Dr. Ron Buckmire, known on the blogosphere as MadProfessah. He is Associate Professor of Mathematics at Occidental College, California, where he first arrived in 1994 as a Minority Scholar-in-Residence Postdoctoral Fellow. As an out gay man for many years Ron has also carved out a place in lgbt rights in America, particularly California. As a mathematician he is a keen advocate of the more pro-active teaching of maths and algebra in schools, and is Program Director in the Division of Undergraduate Education of the National Science Foundation. In 1996 Ron was listed in the Top 100 Gay and Lesbian Activists of the Year by “Out” magazine.

Perhaps MadProfessah’s first taste of fame came at the age of 17, when he beat Geoff Lawton, an international Chess Master, at the British Chess Championships in Edinburgh in 1985 – in just 14 moves! By the next year he was a US Chess Master himself.

There are many, many more black and ethnic lgbt scientists and I hope to include as many as possible throughout the year.

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