Wednesday, February 27, 2008

this post cost me 30¢ 60¢ 90¢

Ok. Technically my procrastination is costing me such big money. For once in a long time, I actually finished reading a book before it was due back to the library, but since I feel the need to write something on this book, I haven't returned it yet. It was due three days ago.

So, here's something...
The book is A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin. The author was interviewed on the radio show Speaking of Faith and it sounded interesting. It is a work of fiction, though the author is largely true to events that happened in the lives of Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing. I'd never heard of Gödel, but I was familiar with Turing (even before his mention in an infamous post by Nacho man).

Both are described in the book as "brilliantly original and outsiders," "loyal to reason and truth," and "besotted with mathematics." Gödel was also a paranoid schizophrenic and a hypochondriac. Turing was gay and possibly a high functioning autistic.

Levin ties Gödel's delicate hold on reality to how he believes he is esteemed by Moritz Schlick, "one of the real ones" who knew to reach out to Gödel through mathematics and had invited Gödel to join the meetings of the Vienna Circle. The struggle depicted for Turing is a tug of war between his materialism and his tentative faith in the soul, the human spirit, God. His love—first love—for a school mate, and the loss of this love, were the basis of and the undoing of his faith.
What Alan feared then, and what he now knows to be true, is that when Chris was gone, he was gone. When Chris died, so began the decline of Alan's faith. And when it was finally gone, it was gone.
I really have no firm understanding of Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorems or Alan Turing's machines, but the passages that describe how each thinks and their personal convictions and the conflictions around these beliefs are beautiful.
There are bolts of luminescence in the world. Hard, brilliant candies that crackle like jewels, fanning pointed rays of gold through an otherwise gray landscape. Sometimes Alan can see these splendors unaided... Sometimes he has to distill them.... Sometimes he discovers them with his mind like the inverse trigonometric function that he managed to express as an infinite series of simpler algebraic forms. These are the best, these dazzling gems of his brain's relentless, systematic expeditions.... To Alan, this is the world: luminous boulders, a string of precious stones. He jumps from one to the next just barely able to balance above the murky sea of fakes and phonies.
Kurt's thoughts touch upon several themes at once. When he is thinking most clearly he often sees things in big groups and not sequential steps. He can work backward and reconstruct a more linear formal logical argument, proving one step after the other for the purposes of a seminar or an article that is read from left to right one letter at a time staggered by a numbered list of equations. But this is not how the most beautiful ideas come to him. Sometimes they emerge whole without justification, like his theorem, which is not at all linear. It is self-referential, a tangled loop. A serpent swallowing its own tale. He wishes he could present this result to Moritz as it appears to him, that he could just open his mouth and have the fully formed shape stretch out.
I could go on, but I'd best return the book. Don't want to break the bank...and there are 22 people waiting for a copy!

[I found a nice write up on this book here. By total coincidence (I swear) she also catches fish.]


Cool Ranch Luke said...

Oh Erin, you flatter me that I played any role at all in your choice of reading materiel. Thanks!

erin said...

Ok, I'll give you that. :)
And don't think I didn't think of you and pi and your ouroboros when I read the bit about the serpent eating its tale (and the book did say tale, not tail).

Leila said...


Cool Ranch Luke said...

Right, but that's, like 80 cents Canadian. D'oh! BAD schadenfreude. BAD!

erin said...

True, true...but no one in these parts has to pay membership fees to check out public library books. oooh, snap!

Cool Ranch Luke said...

Truth be told, I don't actually go to the library. In fact, I can't read. Thanks so much for opening up that old wound *sniff*.

erin said...

Can't read? That makes your writing all the more remarkable!

Dry your tears, get a card, and try it out. Maybe your son might like it...and if he isn't already, maybe he could eventually read to you.

Plus, you might buy fewer books and have a little less stuff.

Ok, no more pushing.

Leila said...

Books don't count as "stuff"!

You're at $1.50 now. We're fining you for not posting.