Douglas R. Hofstadter Biography


Douglas Richard Hofstadter (HOHF-stat-ur), a computer scientist, has used ideas from many fields, particularly from self-referential systems, to illustrate the subtle ways in which the human mind is related to matter. He was the son of Robert and Nancy (Givan) Hofstadter; the family also included two daughters. His father was a physicist at the Norden Laboratories Corporation in New York, but after World War II, he left the industry to teach physics at Princeton University, where he had received his doctorate in 1938. During Hofstadter’s formative years, his father guided and inspired him in science and mathematics, and his mother encouraged him in his humanistic and musical endeavors. In 1950 his father left Princeton to teach physics at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Stanford’s linear accelerator, which was then under construction, became the means by which Robert Hofstadter did research on the proton and neutron; in 1961 he received the Nobel Prize in Physics. During this time Hofstadter attended elementary and high school in California. Besides continuing his early interests in science and mathematics, he learned to play the piano and to speak French fluently.

Through the influence of his father, his reading, and his education, he developed a strong belief that science showed people how to relate correctly to the world. Because of his father’s prominence in the scientific world, Hofstadter also met and learned from many important intellectuals. Ernest Nagel, a philosopher of science, became a friend and mentor. Another influence was Otto Frisch, a nuclear physicist, in whose office at the University of Cambridge, England, Hofstadter became enchanted by the prints of the Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher. Hofstadter attended Stanford University and received his B.S. degree, with distinction, in 1965, when he was only twenty years old. His major was mathematics, but he had also pursued his interest in languages, acquiring some ability in German, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish, and developed an interest in computers and computer languages. Toward the end of his undergraduate studies he started to focus on physics, the field that became the subject of his graduate studies at the University of Oregon. He once said that he was a physicist by training and a computer scientist by vocation. Indeed, it was during his years as a graduate student that he wrote a preliminary version of what evolved into Gödel, Escher, Bach.

Originally Hofstadter had intended to write a pamphlet about Gödel’s theorem, but he found his thoughts expanding to include the works of Escher and Johann Sebastian Bach. He wrote a first version of 250 pages by hand in two months, but he was dissatisfied with it because of obscurities and wide variations of tone. He typed a second version in about eight months, but at this point he decided to return to full-time work on his Ph.D. After receiving his doctorate in 1975 Hofstadter returned to Palo Alto and began to work in the Institute for Mathematical Studies in the Social Sciences at Stanford University. Because of the kindness of the institute’s director, Hofstadter was given access to an excellent computer system, the use of which made a great difference in his writing style. Another important influence on the book was Scott Kim, who became a valued friend and whose ideas about computers, mathematics, music, and art deeply influenced Hofstadter and contributed to the book’s creation.

In 1977 Hofstadter became an assistant professor of computer science at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he began to work on artificial intelligence (AI) and where he finally finished Gödel, Escher, Bach. The ultimate goal of his AI research was to discover the secrets of human consciousness and creativity by modeling both phenomena on a computer. His book on Gödel, Escher, and Bach reflects his wide range of interests and confronted librarians with the problem of whether to catalog it in mathematics, art, music, psychology, or philosophy. Most chose mathematics, and indeed the revolutionary work of the Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel was pivotal to Hofstadter’s project. Hofstadter uses a variety of...

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Bloomfield, Brian P., ed. The Question of Artificial Intelligence: Philosophical and Sociological Perspectives. New York: C. Helm, 1987. Hofstadter’s work in artificial intelligence is outlined.

Dreyfus, Hubert L., and Stuart E. Dreyfus. Mind over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer. 1986. Reprint. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. Questions the possibilities of real artificial intelligence, arguing that human intuitive ability will always be superior to binary logic.

Rothstein, Edward. “The Dream of Mind and Machine.” Review of Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas R. Hofstadter. The New York Review of Books, December 6, 1979. An early assessment of Hofstadter’s work.

Wanner, Adrian. Review of Eugene Onegin, translated by Douglas R. Hofstadter. Comparative Literature Studies 37, no. 1 (2000). An extended, favorable review.