Douglas Hofstadter

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Cognitive researcher

Douglas Hofstadter is College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Comparative Literature, where he also directs the Fluid Analogies Research Group, nicknamed “FARG”, at the Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition. For roughly 25 years, the FARGonauts have been making computational models of our human concepts and categories, the premise being that if and when these mini-concepts achieve the holy grail of “fluidity”, creative analogy-making will be an outcome. Progress has been made, but there is still far to go.

Hofstadter’s interests concerning the human mind are varied, ranging from errors as a window on the mind, to the mechanisms of creativity to the nature of consciousness. Currently his most active goal is to reveal how analogy-making lies at the base of all human thought. Hofstadter has a lifelong love for languages, and has written a tome about translation, analogies, constraints, and creativity (Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language), plus translated many poems and two novels into English – one novel in verse (Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin) and one in prose (Françoise Sagan’s La Chamade, anagrammatically titled in English That Mad Ache). He has also spent much time doing art and music.

From 1981 to 1983, taking over from Martin Gardner’s incomparable “Mathematical Games” column, Hofstadter wrote the free-ranging “Metamagical Themas” column for Scientific American, from which a book of that title was later created.

Hofstadter received his doctorate in physics from the University of Oregon in 1975, and his thesis project led him to discover that crystal electrons in magnetic fields have a beautiful self-similar energy spectrum, the graph of which has since been dubbed the “Hofstadter butterfly”. A couple of decades after his Ph.D., he started avidly exploring the astonishing role played by irrational analogical leaps in progress in physics, and he plans eventually to write a book on the topic.

In the early 1960’s, Douglas Hofstadter majored in mathematics at Stanford, and it was his passion for number theory and logic that led him eventually to writing the book for which he is best known, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. Later in life, he discovered a latent love for geometries of many types, and a special delight in the lowly Euclidean triangle. Here, too, a book may one day come out, focused on the discovery process in mathematics. Last but not least is Hofstadter’s passion for making abstract-seeming mathematical ideas, such as group theory and Galois theory, visualizable and very down-to-earth.

The key lodestars that constantly guide what Hofstadter himself produces and that determine what he savors in others’ work are: simplicity, clarity, structural elegance, and a relentless attempt to understand and to explain subtle ideas in terms that are as concrete and as elementary as possible.

Although Douglas Hofstadter is nominally associated with a few departments at Indiana University, he is actually left pretty much alone to pursue his multifarious interests, which he does with alacrity, celerity, vim, vigor, and vitality. Hofstadter’s own way of characterizing his personal style and his personal goals runs as follows: “perpetually in search of beauty.”