Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines

I just finished reading Janna Levin's novelization A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. It is a superb piece of writing. At the end the author (an astrophysicist) lists her sources and indicates which aspects of the narrative are her fictional inventions and which historically accurate, with sources also for quotes.

The principal characters are Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel, both geniuses and revolutionaries in the realm of mathematical logic (Turing the theoretical pioneer of computation and artificial intelligence), both out of their minds, and both meeting a tragic end. But they are also polar opposites in one respect: Turing the mechanical materialist, Gödel the spiritualist, both unable to deal with the world they lived in from opposing yet united philosophical perspectives.

By comparison, another important character, Ludwig Wittgenstein, is sane, though he is wigged out himself. Moritz Schlick, head of the Vienna Circle (eventually murdered by a fascist), is pretty tight-assed himself, but more normal. The most human of the male geniuses are Otto Neurath and Oskar Morgenstern. All these are real people, though the actual treatment of their interchanges with the main characters are embellished in spots--with Otto and Oskar, that is.

There is so much a novel can do to remain generally digestible while engaging the ideas of Gödel, Turing, and Wittgenstein, but one gets a sense of their overall obsessions if not the technical depth of their ideas, though one gets a general notion of what they are. Not all geniuses are so one-sided, but such is the course of human history. That we can think anything at all is a wonder under the circumstances.

Of note to us would be the relationship of the innovations of the central characters in the formal sciences to their extra-formal philosophies to their actual social existence. Wittgenstein, who exploited formalism in his Tractatus, is the least impressed by it, seeing no real problem in contradiction in mathematics or logic proper, contrary to Gödel, Turing, and Schlick. All of these people, however, as is the world, were caught up in larger contradictions which they could not even adequately conceptualize, let alone surmount.

This by an astrophysicist and a first class writer. If I actually believed women were superior in integrating thought and feeling, this would convince me.

Here is her web site

Janna Levin's Space

Here, you can find out more about her novel and the take on the subject matter in an interview:

"Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth | On Being". Speaking of Faith. 2012-05-31

A few months ago I encountered Levin (didn't know who she was) on an episode of "Star Talk" by Neil de Grasse Tyson. You can listen to the entire episode on the Star Talk site or watch it on Facebook:

Celebrating Einstein - Star Talk, March 9, 2018

StarTalk: Special Einstein Episode

Here is what I wrote at the time:

Later on, there's a lot about black holes with a side order of neutron stars. Also at the end Levin says that what is most amazing about Einstein is the acceptance of constraints (speed of light) and fierce intellectual independence. Early on, what is most interesting is the assertion that had Einstein not been there, special relativity would have been discovered within a few years. But general relativity was so different from what anyone was thinking, that without Einstein it would have taken another half century to come up with something and it would have looked completely different. This is a testimony to Einstein's imagination and intuition and intellectual boldness, the most amazing scientific achievement in history.

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