Biography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1714

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.

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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 techniques in the book—including puzzles, thought experiments, and dialogues—as well as a variety of examples—the drawings of Escher, the music of Bach, and ideas drawn from such diverse fields as logic, linguistics, psychology, biochemistry, and physics—to illuminate the inability of humans to grasp the paradoxical nature of their own thought processes. He wanted readers to savor these paradoxes so that they might finally gain insights into the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the animate and inanimate, human and machine, and mind and matter.

Hofstadter’s interweaving of Gödel’s mathematics, Escher’s art, and Bach’s music fashioned a unique book that intrigued reviewers, some of whom praised its vitality, wit, and originality. Others, especially scholars in art, music, and philosophy, thought that his intrusion into their fields was superficial and heavy-handed. There were those who considered Hofstadter’s stress on Bach’s formal devices in canons and fugues to be distorted and trivial, particularly given his neglect of the intent and content of Bach’s religious music. Philosophers, with their long tradition of thinking about the mind, were irritated that Hofstadter found no place for a discussion of Gilbert Ryle’s ideas in The Concept of Mind (1949). Despite the mixed reaction in some of the reviews, the book sold more than a hundred thousand copies in the year following its publication. In a short time it achieved standing as a classic, and Hofstadter received the largest advance ever paid for the paperback rights to a scholarly book. It was nominated for a National Book Critics Award in 1979, and it won for Hofstadter the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1980. At the same time, Hofstadter was promoted to associate professor at Indiana University and received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study the computer perception of alphabetical letter styles.

Hofstadter’s second book grew out of his year as a Guggenheim Fellow. He returned to Palo Alto, where, at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, he met Daniel C. Dennett, a professor of philosophy from Tufts University who was doing research on artificial intelligence. Their book, The Mind’s I, is an anthology of essays and stories that they collected and combined with their own reflections. In general the book was well received by critics, although some found its format irritating. During the 1980’s Hofstadter became interested in the problem of the inflexibility of most computer programs. Computers can play chess and manipulate mathematical formulas with ever-increasing skill, but they cannot abstract from their experience and they cannot generalize their performance. Some of these issues cropped up in a column that Hofstadter began writing for Scientific American in 1981. Martin Gardner, the science writer whose monthly column “Mathematical Games” had appeared for a quarter of a century, retired, and Hofstadter became his successor. To express his admiration and gratitude to Gardner he called his column “Metamagical Themas,” an anagram of Gardner’s “Mathematical Games.” Many longtime readers of the magazine did not find Hofstadter’s columns as interesting or engaging as Gardner’s. Hofstadter was a representative of a new computer culture whose interest seemed alien to many members of traditional scientific and technical groups. On the other hand, the computer revolution had created a large community of scientists and technicians who sympathized with what Hofstadter was trying to do.

By 1983 Hofstadter was finding the responsibilities of a monthly column increasingly burdensome because he was deeply involved in creating computer programs that mimicked analogical thinking. He therefore wrote a final column in July, 1983, and in 1984 he left the computer science department at Indiana University to become Walgreen Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. This move to Michigan marked the start of the Fluid Analogies Research Group (FARG), whose aim was to use computer programs to model the fluidlike properties of human thought. Some of his research appeared in his book Metamagical Themas, a collection of essays, many first published in his column for Scientific American, dealing with a variety of topics in arithmetic, geometry, computer science, linguistics, genetics, and other fields of science. Although most reviewers praised the book, some found fault with its scattershot approach.

In 1988 Indiana University coaxed Hofstadter back to Bloomington with an irresistible offer of resources to direct the Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition. He became able to attract talented researchers from all over the world to work on various computer programs designed to generate insightful analogies in a humanly realistic way. Hofstadter’s belief is that these programs have a small degree of consciousness. In 1995 he published the preliminary results of his decade-and-a-half of research in cognitive science in the book Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought. The book describes several computer programs developed by Hofstadter and his colleagues to explore how the basically parallel activities of the human mind can be modeled by a computer. Hofstadter put this book together in 1993 and 1994 during a sabbatical leave at a scientific research institute in northern Italy. Tragically, his young wife died in Verona, Italy, on December 22, 1993, leaving him with their two children.

Le ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language is an extended meditation on translation, inspired by attempts to translate a French poem composed by Clément Marot in 1537. Hofstadter invited a wide variety of people to translate the poem, which forms the core of his thoughts. Furthering his interest in linguistic interfaces, he published his own translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in 1999.

Hofstadter’s hopes for the future center on the evolution of his group’s computer programs so that they will be truly insightful and creative. Throughout his career Hofstadter has shown a deep faith in rational thought and a keen wariness of its limitations. For him the brain, like the computer, is in many ways a mechanical system. He also believes, however, that the mind somehow transcends the biomechanical system that supports it. Hofstadter began his first work with the declared purpose of bridging the gap between the mental and the mechanical. In his writings he has helped readers both in the computer culture and in non-computer related fields to discover new ways of thinking about themselves.

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