domingo, 12 de octubre de 2008

Madness and Genius

One of my favorite comics is Abstruse Goose, which often shows a mix of science, math and humor. Great stuff! But I was rather surprised by the latest comic, The Cantor Madness, which somehow plays with the idea that some things “aren't meant to be comprehended by finite minds”. The comic also included links to a BBC documentary Dangerous Knowledge by independent filmmaker David Malone.

The film is quite interesting, it describes some of the amazing work of Georg Cantor (on infinity in mathematics), Ludwig Boltzmann (on statistical thermodynamics), Kurt Gödel (on the incompleteness theorem in logic) and Alan Turing (on computability and the halting problem). I learned many interesting things, I was familiar with the work of Cantor but not so much with his life. I also didn't knew too much about the work of Boltzmann.

On the downside, all of the movie somehow speculates that the power of the ideas that these persons were developing in their minds also caused them, well, to go insane. In particular, as well as the comic shows, it is lightly suggested that trying to prove the continuum hypothesis will literally drive you crazy. And we have seen this before. Other movies, such as A Beautiful Mind and very explicitly Pi, play with the similar concept of ideas so powerful that can effectively break your mind.

Coming back specifically to BBC's documentary, it is true that all of these scientists often had problems with depressions, in particular both Boltzmann and Turing ended their lives by suicide. But the hints of the movie trying to connect their work and ideas with their mental problems are very misleading.

Coincidentally, I've just finished reading a biography of Gödel, so I can shed some light on that. Gödel actually had problems with depression and hypochondriasis throughout all of his life. Not related at all with him trying to prove the continuum hypothesis, his mental illness gradually developed by many factors such as stress, a lot of pressure from responsibilities at work, and the death of close friends (Einstein being one of them).

The other interesting case is Alan Turing. He didn't really suffered from any strong depression or mental illness. He was an homosexual at a time where, in the U.K., homosexuality was regarded as illegal and a criminal offense. As an alternative to jail, Turing was given the option to undergo hormonal treatment with estrogen hormone injections to reduce his libido. His dead had certainly more to do with this prosecution than with the genius and reach of his ideas.

Also disappointing is the fact that the movie never mentions that the continuum hypothesis has been resolved. And the solution is no less exciting than the incompleteness theorem and the halting problem themselves. For those who haven't heard about it before, here is a very quick description of the problem. It turns out, as Cantor showed, that there are infinities of different sizes. In particular, he showed that there are more real numbers than there are natural numbers. The question is then: is there an infinite set whose size is larger that that of natural numbers but smaller than that of real numbers?

Well, as Paul Cohen proved by concluding the work of Gödel, the answer is: whatever you like. More formally he showed that the answer is independent from the axioms of set theory (as given by Zermelo–Fraenkel). So you can assume that there are no infinite sets between natural and real numbers, be happy with that, and prove theorems; in very much the same way in which you can assume that there are infinite sets between natural and real numbers, be happy with that, and prove theorems. Isn't that exciting or what?

Anyway, the movie obviously left me with some intrigue. It is true that some of the greatest minds of mankind have suffered from very strong mental illnesses. Is it maybe true that there is somehow a link between the two? I thought that, obviously, someone should have already done a study in that respect and, as I found out, of course many studies have been done. I was initially surprised with the results (after some thought it actually makes sense) since the fact is that yes, there is a correlation, but the correlation is negative.

According to several studies cited in the Intelligence quotient article on Wikipedia, persons with higher IQ tend to suffer less from severe depression, schizophrenia and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Also a higher IQ is correlated with living longer and more healthy. Children with higher IQ also were less likely to suffer injuries that require hospitalization in their adult life. One possible explanation being that they better avoid injury and take better care of their own health.

4 comentarios:

Linda dijo...

Muy interesate post. No conocia esos comics...gracias por la referencia. Me dirijo ahora a checar el doc de BBC.

La vida de Boltzmann, tremenda. Ni que decir. Digo hay una razon por la cual la ec. S=klog W esta en su epitafio,

Rafael Peñaloza dijo...

Since you left Cantor out in your refutation, let me introduce my theory here.
For me, the reason why Cantor finished his life in madness is not related to his revolutionary ideas per se, but more to the great rejection he suffered because of them.
Imagine that everything you do is marked by the whole scientific community as irrelevant, senseless and wrong. After several years, this has to drive you crazy.
Great post, btw.

juan antonio dijo...

Linda: Gracias por tu comment, la verdad que si me dejó muy interesado el documental, sobre todo en saber un poco más de la relevancia del trabajo de Boltzmann. Ojalá algún día nos puedas comentar un poco al respecto en tu blog.

Rafael: Also thanks for your comment, and for your thoughts about the case of Cantor. I can imagine how this rejection of your ideas, which you moreover recognize as revolutionary, can affect your mental health. I'm certainly interested in learning a bit more about the life of Cantor.

Also thanks to the creator of Abstruse Goose, who took the time to read the my ramblings sparkled from her comic. :-)

Rafael Peñaloza dijo...

By a strange coincidence, I just read this phrase in a short story by James Joyce:
"Great minds are very near to madness".