driven mad by paradoxes
September 4, 2007 10:46 PM   Subscribe

Dangerous Knowledge, BBC. In this one-off documentary, David Malone looks at four brilliant mathematicians - Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing - whose genius has profoundly affected us, but which tragically drove them insane and eventually led to them all committing suicide.
posted by nickyskye (39 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Viewable also at Google Video.
posted by nickyskye at 10:47 PM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Uh, not to nitpick, but I think that Alan Turing died as a consequence of being a persecuted homosexual, not because he was a clever fellow.
posted by lekvar at 10:55 PM on September 4, 2007 [9 favorites]

That's it. I'm never balancing my checkbook again.
posted by Rangeboy at 10:56 PM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines: Limits of Truth and Mind, by Janna Levin.
posted by Chuckles at 11:23 PM on September 4, 2007

In modern medical terms, it’s fairly clear that G.F.L.P. Cantor suffered from manic-depressive illness at a time when nobody knew what this was, and that his polar cycles were aggravated by professional stresses and disappointments, of which Cantor had more than his share. This is, of course, makes for less interesting flap copy than Genius Driven Mad By Attempts To Grapple With ∞. The truth, though, is that Cantor’s work and its context are so totally interesting and beautiful that there’s no need for breathless Prometheusizing of the poor guy’s life. The real irony is that the view of ∞ as some forbidden zone or road to insanity—which view was very old and powerful and haunted math for 2000+ years—is precisely what Cantor’s own work overturned. Saying that ∞ drove Cantor mad is sort of like mourning St. George’s loss to the dragon: it’s not only wrong but insulting."
posted by jcruelty at 11:28 PM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

So far I've just finished watching the first bit about Cantor. A rather melodramatic presentation, but interesting enough that I'll keep watching. Thanks.
posted by trip and a half at 11:29 PM on September 4, 2007

The first lines of the documentary:
Beneath the surface of the world are the rules of science, but beneath them there is a far deeper set of rules. A matrix of pure mathematics, which explains the nature of all of the rules of science, and how it is that we can understand them in the first place.
Are you sure this is worth watching? 'cause, you know, that was really lame!

The lecture I linked is really good though, honest.
posted by Chuckles at 11:39 PM on September 4, 2007

Beneath the surface of the world are the rules of science, but beneath them there is a far deeper set of rules. A matrix of pure mathematics, which explains the nature of all of the rules of science, and how it is that we can understand them in the first place.

Someone oughtta tell this narrator that not every mathematician feels this way about mathematics.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 11:47 PM on September 4, 2007

Also, the very interesting Who can name the bigger number? thread.
posted by Chuckles at 11:52 PM on September 4, 2007

Nickyskye gets my 1000th favorite. And now I bid you all a fond adieu.
posted by vronsky at 11:52 PM on September 4, 2007

Chuckles, your link is borked for the moment (not from your end). I finally had to stop watching the original linked video. I think the BBC is being poorly influenced by American television.
posted by trip and a half at 12:03 AM on September 5, 2007

I was disappointed on a visit to the Science Museum in London that in their computing section they refer to Turing's death merely as "untimely." Absolutely no mention that he was driven to suicide by persecution for homosexuality.
posted by grouse at 12:11 AM on September 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

Right, Turing committed suicide because of the nature of his work. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the state destroying his life because a bronze age tribe that burned animals to appease their sadistic god found male homosexuality offended their bizarre conception of cleanliness.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 12:46 AM on September 5, 2007 [4 favorites]

Everybody knows Turing comitted suicide because being forcibly injected with oestrogen to lower his libido had the unfortunate side-effect of making him all girly and wishywashy. A ral man would have found pleasure in his gynecomastia.
posted by Sparx at 12:58 AM on September 5, 2007

er...A *real* man...I never could get that bit quite right
posted by Sparx at 1:00 AM on September 5, 2007

Oh come on. How can you say that Math doesn't drive people mad? Just look at Donald Duck (also)[youtube]-- and he never even discovered anything.
posted by honest knave at 1:44 AM on September 5, 2007

WTF? Did vronsky just vanish? If so, suck.
posted by loquacious at 2:33 AM on September 5, 2007

Heh, this reminds me of a sci fi story I read once about a scientist who discovers that we're all the subjects of an alien experiment. Should scientists get too close to "The Truth" they start to feel a compulsion to kill themselves - IIRC, the comparison was to bacteria who get too close to a ring of penicillin encircling a petri dish. Can't remember the name of the story, but it was a fun read.
posted by longdaysjourney at 4:48 AM on September 5, 2007

longdaysjourney: I think that's an early Asimov short... Yeah, Breeds There A Man. I have way too much junk in my head.
posted by Leon at 5:07 AM on September 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yes, that's it! Thanks Leon - I have an urge to read that again. :)
posted by longdaysjourney at 5:51 AM on September 5, 2007

Not so unusual.
Also: "Until yesterday I had no definite intention of killing myself. But more than a few must have noticed that lately I have been tired both physically and mentally. As to the cause of my suicide, I don't quite understand it myself..." - Yutaka Taniyama
posted by vapidave at 6:30 AM on September 5, 2007

Godel and Cantor, I can buy it. Turing was persecuted for being gay. Bolzmann, I've never heard of before.
posted by empath at 7:23 AM on September 5, 2007

The bewildering, interesting and entertaining dance between abstraction and concrete life. Some handle it better than others.

jcruelty, Thank you so much for that superb article! I'd been inarticulately pondering that topic for a few decades. How nice to see those thoughts well written by David Foster Wallace and in print. A relief really.
posted by nickyskye at 10:16 AM on September 5, 2007

Paging through a collection of Russelliana (might have been his autobiography, but I don't think so) I came across a terrible, desperate, heartbreaking letter from Cantor saying how he was hoping to be named head of some library as a sinecure, so that he could keep body, soul and family together, and also so he could show who had really written the works of Shakespeare.

Couldn't find a copy of the letter online, but I did find a site discussing, in passing, his surprising obsession with the Bard.

When I read Hodges' book on Turing ( Alan Turing: the Enigma-- a great intellectual biography, by the way, which will take you far into Turing's thought), I was convinced he believed Turing had been assassinated, but could not bring himself to say so, for whatever reason, but Hodges' website on Turing contradicts this view. According to the Wikipedia article on Turing, David Leavitt's The man who knew too much: Alan Turing and the invention of the computer, suggests the possibility of assassination. (Note the review by Andrew Hodges at the bottom of the Amazon page.)

Godel was notoriously hypochondriacal during his years at Princeton, thought he was being poisoned, and apparently starved himself to death when his wife was unable to cook his meals. He had a history of bleeding ulcers, and I think the received view of his decline ought to be reassessed in light of what we now know about ulcers and Helicobacter pylori.
posted by jamjam at 11:06 AM on September 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Surprised nobody mentioned Paul Erdős and the Erdős number.

Pi - faith in chaos is a cult-classic low budget movie about a mad mathematician. Well worth checking out, BTW.
posted by xetere at 11:51 AM on September 5, 2007

Erdős was eccentric but I don't think he was a mad mathematician in the sense of being bipolar. Also, he died of a heart attack and seemed like a happy guy until the end.
posted by vacapinta at 12:07 PM on September 5, 2007

The idea that math is so complex and abstract that it drives people insane is very popular, and very wrong. An entertaining and depressing example is the once-popular mystery novel Presumed Innocent, in which the murderer turns out to be the female mathematician, driven mad by the contradiction between the abstraction of her work and her illogical feminine nature! Oy.

DFWallace's article linked by jcruelty is a good one. I wrote an article in the Believer a few years ago which speculates about why people have this strange belief that thinking about mathematics drives you crazy and kills you.
posted by escabeche at 2:30 PM on September 5, 2007

Erdős was eccentric

Erdos was a speed freak.
posted by geos at 2:32 PM on September 5, 2007

You don't think that the kind of mind capable of dealing with complex mathematical concepts is also the type of mind prone to what others see as insanity?

I know that when I'm struggling to understand something on the edge of my abilities to visualize, either in math or astronomy, there's sometimes a dizzying vertigo of depression that goes along with it. When you start getting to the fundamentals of existence, the edges of our capability to understand, it seems like a yawning abyss opens up in front of me where all meaning gets swept away.

(was that melodramatic enough)

I can definitely see how someone who lives in that state of mind for an extended length of time can have difficulty accomplishing things that normal people find easy.
posted by empath at 4:30 PM on September 5, 2007

escabeche i read that article! it was good.
posted by jcruelty at 4:35 PM on September 5, 2007

and yeah, it's funny to me that paul erdos's ampethamine addiction only got a passing mention in a biography of his that i read. seems like a "non-trivial" part of his life.
posted by jcruelty at 4:37 PM on September 5, 2007

Cool. But by God I hate enactments. Less show, more tell, please.
posted by AwkwardPause at 6:35 PM on September 5, 2007

The shit that the British pulled on Turing was fucking deplorable. The people responsible for his death, along with their families, distant relatives, friends and acquaintances should be lined up and given a furious gay rogering. Without him, there's a good chance everyone in London would be speaking deutsch right now.
posted by mullingitover at 6:38 PM on September 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

You don't think that the kind of mind capable of dealing with complex mathematical concepts is also the type of mind prone to what others see as insanity?

In my experience, no. We are not particulary brittle people. It might be true that people who think about math all day are less apt to be interested in social norms (though even this is not the case for most mathematicians.)
posted by escabeche at 6:50 PM on September 5, 2007

whose genius.. tragically drove them insane and eventually led to them all committing suicide.

According to the Wikipedia articles you linked, Turing was tortured for a year before he committed suicide, Cantor died in a sanatorium after a year of ill health, and Godel died of inanition in an asylum.

Your summary - lifted word-for-word from the BBC site, I see - is that of a simpleton. It doesn't reflect the reality of how these people lived and how they died.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:32 AM on September 6, 2007

Hmm, brain matters got you a bit testy today ikkyu2? Posts often take their substance from the text referred to, no quotation marks, example.

Perhaps you should take up that point in MetaTalk.

As for the substance of your comment, a large number of brainiacs I've met could not handle aspects of ordinary life, were crippled socially and many suffered deep depression. It seems understandable a documentary was made pointing out both the genius and tragic death by suicide of four brilliant mathematicians.
posted by nickyskye at 9:11 PM on September 8, 2007

I'm a recovering mathematician myself, and I think there's something to the idea that doing mathematics can have an odd effect on your mental state. When I was working hard on mathematicl problems for an extended period of time, I think I started to get a bit loopy. Spending all of your time (and this is not the sort of thing you can just do 9-5) thinking about complicated abstractions with no direct connection to reality can put you into an odd mental state. I think I'm probably saner now that I've mostly given up on mathematics (even though I now do computer programming, which might seem to some to be similar)...
posted by klausness at 3:24 PM on September 9, 2007

Nickyskye, I'm not criticizing you. All I'm saying is that they didn't all commit suicide. It seems understandable that a documentary would be made about it if they had - but it isn't true.

Dying in a nursing home at an advanced age, after a prolonged illness, isn't suicide. And what happened to Turing beggars description.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:15 AM on September 11, 2007

« Older The killing of Jamie Dean   |   Are you white? Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments