FOM: Man of the Century

Matt Insall montez at
Sun Jan 9 22:29:09 EST 2000

 Professor Friedman wrote, on 28 December, 1999:

  >There is nothing definitive about Time Magazine's list, of course.
  >But it is an indication that there is greater general interest in
  >what Godel and Turing did than what went on in core mathematics,
  >regardless of how deep and intricate it was. If the core
  >mathematicians wish to compete with Godel and Turing in the general
  >intellectual culture of our times, they will want to cast their
  >subjects in more generally intellectually attractive and generally
  >understandable terms.

  To an extent, I agree with Professor Friedman here.  But note that
  Einstein has been declared ``Person of the Century’’ by one of these
  magazines, and it is his use of non-Euclidean Geometry and other
  higher-level ``core mathematics’’ that won him that ``title’’.  Thus, even
  if ``core mathematicians’’ do not seem to be competing well with Gödel and
  Turing (whose popularity I expect turns on the spin of computer scientists
  mostly, rather than their own abilities in self-promotion), their
  mathematics is even more popular then that of Gödel and Turing.  What is
  most popular from Gödel and Turing anyway?  Is it Gödel’s undecidability
  proofs?  Not really.  What is popular is a large amount of misquoting of
  those results, in the form of ``we can never know whether mathematics is
  consistent’’.  This neglects the influence of Church’s Thesis in the
  hypotheses, and applies to human capabilities limitations which are not
  known for certain to be the limitations on computation devices.  In
  actuality, I would say that core mathematics has fared even better than
  Foundations and other types of mathematics, and this success with the
  general populace is, to a large extent due to the popularization of modern
  physics and its mathematical flavour, through popular science fiction.
  Results there may be misquoted as well, but the physical results are much
  more commonly understood, in spite of the existence of many misquotes.
  where there is a reasonable amount of room for popularization of Gödel’s
  Turing’s results in science fiction, they are essentially never mentioned.
  I speak of the popularization of theoretical computer science in stories
  about robots and androids.  Currently, in the computer science and
  philosophical literature, and in applications to computer engineering,
  is frequent reference to ``Gödellian self-reference’’, but even this
  terminology seems not to have been popularized by the futuristic
  We must face the fact that people in general do not understand what we do,
  and therefore they do not care much about it.

  Matt Insall
  montez at

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