Thursday, February 03, 2011

Douglas Hofstader at UO

A former physicist I went to grad school with, who now lives in Eugene, writes about a talk given by Doug Hofstader yesterday. Unfortunately I missed the talk, although I read Hofstader's autobiographical I am a Strange Loop a few years ago. Godel, Escher, Bach made a big impression on me in high school. I actually considered going into AI, until I discovered there was no there there ;-)

The speaker did not give a talk so much on physics but rather on his personal experiences up through physics grad school at the University of Oregon, many years ago. His father was a famous physicist, but he was more interested in math as a young boy, especially number theory. He majored in math at Stanford, and then started working on a degree in theoretical particle physics at Berkeley. But he found the work being done there "ugly" and way above his abilities. Moreover, this was during the Vietnam War, and the politics on campus back then was too intense for him, although he was sympathetic. He ended up transferring to the UO physics department, where he at least found the atmosphere much more laid back. But he still found theoretical physics to be too hard for him, and too "ugly" (too many unjustified assumptions motivated merely by flimsy mathematical justifications). At one point he was so disgusted with his field that he quit. He ended up doing theoretical solid state physics, even though he had originally felt like this was little more than engineering. To cut to the chase, he started his talk recounting some experimental mathematics he did while still a teenager, using what was then Stanford's only computer. And he connected in telling part of his life story, he ended up coming full circle to explain how his earlier interests as a boy connected to a significant paper he published towards the end of his graduate career. This paper concerned how the energy bands of crystals in a magnetic field depend on the strength of that field. A graph summarizing his results has been reproduced many times on the covers of solid state physics texts and physics journals, making him a kind of physics celebrity. What he discovered is known as the Hofstadter Butterfly and his name is Douglas Hofstadter.

This was a fascinating talk, not only because his experiences mirrored mine (and probably many of yours) to some extent, but also because he wrote the Pulitzer-Prize winning book Gödel, Escher, Bach, which came out and I ready while studying math in college. But he did not talk about his book, at least not directly, but rather about many of his failures proceeding his subsequent success with the book, become a professor of cognitive science, publishing other books, and succeeding Martin Gardner as the mathematics columnist for Scientific American. But afterwards I asked him about GEB, as the introduction to the book explains that he wrote a first version of the book while still a grad student at UO. It was a passion of love for him, but one that he saw was interfering with getting a doctorate, which he felt he needed to do in order to have a membership card into academia. So for a time he found ways to forbid himself from working on the book. (He would reduce his small food allowance for every hour he worked on the book, which could easily have led him to starvation.) Subsequently, he totally rewrote the book to be in the form that was published, but that is all sequel to the "failed" period of life he was describing.

If there was a moral to his talk -- it certainly wasn't about any deep physical or mathematical principles -- it was about how luck plays an important role in life, perhaps as much as innate ability, skill and hard work.

1 comment:

robert61 said...

I saw him last year at Uppsala University in Sweden, where the talk was all about language and translation. The UO lecture sounds more interesting.

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