“Dangerous Knowledge”

Last night I saw a documentary about 4 individuals; three of them were mathematicians, the other, a physicist. The documentary was about their reaction to a world where the classical view of the world of certainties, absolute laws, and clarity about the universe slowly faded away; and as well as the fact that people are just human, they suffered terrible lives and suffered for their craft.

The first individual was a mathematician named Georg Cantor; Cantor was working on a notion of infinity, and his work was rejected in his day. Cantor sought to establish a perfect mathematical system which was missing a key element that unified them all together; the illness he suffered was in some resepect a result of his labours to find a so-called “Continuum Hypothesis”; this hypothesis comes up later on in the program

The second individual was a physicist named Boltzmann; Boltzmann challenged the putative view that the understanding of the physical world was by a set of laws prescribed by God; but rather, we must understand physical behaviour as probabilistic and not in terms of the grand scheme of things like laws and God, but in the micro-phenomena of the world. As many rejected his suggestion he kept labouring to defend his claim, eventually writing books and treatise which eventually just kept saying the same thing. Boltzmann was around his enemies constantly and was an object of derision from his peers, such as Poincare and Mach.

The last pair of stories involve Alan Turing, and Kurt Godel. I find these particularly interesting as they hit close to home. What seemed most poignant of these stories was the price that their mathematics had on their minds, and more importantly, their mortalities.

Some of the stuff in Cantor I found particularly interesting; like a relic of his past that he carried on him constantly; a letter from his father that speaks of his father’s pride in his son; and his secret wish to be a musician, instead of a mathematician; and soon after the death of his son, whom which he wanted to be a musician, he gave up living. All of these individuals died through suicide. Poisoning, starvation, hanging…tragic ends for noble minds


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