FOM: Man of the Century
Matt Insall
montez at rollanet.org
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
even
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.
Even
where there is a reasonable amount of room for popularization of Gödel’s
and
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,
there
is frequent reference to ``Gödellian self-reference’’, but even this
terminology seems not to have been popularized by the futuristic
literature.
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
http://www.rollanet.org/~montez
montez at rollanet.org
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