Metamagical Themas by Douglas Hofstadter (1985)


Most people will be familiar with Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Brain, the Pulitzer-prize winning book by physicist and cognitive science professor Douglas Hofstadter, and in my opinion, the single most captivating and impressively-creative book of all time. If you’re not, go find a copy right now! It is a long book, but immensely rewarding, touching an aspects of art, music, mathematics, biology, cognitive science and artificial intelligence, all told with a remarkable combination of accessibility, playfulness, creativity, and flair.

Metamagical Themas, published in 1985, six years after GEB, is a collection of the columns that Hofstadter wrote for Scientific American, in a space he took over from Martin Gardner, originally named (anagramatically) Mathematical Games. This sort of play with words pervades the whole of this book, which ranges over topics such as skepticism, self-reference, game theory, consciousness, the genetic code, language, mathematics, typefaces, programming, artificial intelligence, and more. Suffice to say, it is a large book. It took me a while to get into it, as the first couple of chapters are rather imposing, but soon I was rushing along at a good pace. For the most part, each chapter is quite self-contained, although they are grouped into themes, such as “Structure & Strangeness”. Each also has a “post-script” amended, an assessment or commentary written in hindsight at the time of putting this volume together.

I find it interesting that the more one reads of Hofstadter, the more one becomes familiar with his bag of tricks, and to some extent, the less impressive they seem. However, he is indisputably impressive in his range of knowledge, and the way his disparate interests seem to cohere so strongly around certain issues. Moreover, he has other hidden talents on display here, such as his ambigrams – drawings of words that can still be read after either flipping or rotation. Some of my favourite chapters were: “Nomic” – a legal game in which players must modify the rules in an attempt to win; a dual set of chapters on the use of gendered language, one of which is one of the most effective satires I’ve ever read; a wonderful chapter on the music of Chopin; “Magic Cubology” – an exploration of Hofstadter’s fascination with the Rubik’s cube, and the best illustration I’ve ever seen of what exactly mathematicians do; and “Dilemmas for Superrational Thinkers” – one of a few chapters on the prisoner’s dilemma, in which Hofstadter at least makes you consider, if not quite be convinced, that the conventional wisdom may be wrong.

Towards the end of the book, Hofstadter turns his attention to nuclear war, obviously the most pressing distributed social problem of its time (and arguable just as important today). While not being especially articulate about what exactly he feels should be done, Hofstadter is able to provide useful ways of thinking about the scale of the problem, and the ways in which collective action might (or might not) work.

All in all, this book (understandably) doesn’t hang together on the same level as GEB or I am a Strange Loop, but it still provides much to think about, and we are indeed fortunate that it exists.

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