Greetings from sunny Tipton

In which we think about science and scientists


Lounging around on a sunny Sunday morning, I was planning, plotting, and thinking of things to write here. Planning on writing about the cake K was promising to bake, or W’s upcoming birthday, or yesterday’s trip to Oxford with C and P and various other people. And I started thinking: why do I refer to people by letter like that?

I quickly realised where I might have got it from: the scientist and writer Jeremy Bernstein. I have, somewhere on my shelves, a copy of his book Experiencing Science, a compilation of articles he wrote for the New Yorker. It is mostly a series of pocket biographies of prominent scientists, from Kepler through to Oppenheimer via Lysenko, Franklin, and others; but at the end of the book is a slightly strange, partly fictional essay on the work of Turing and Gödel. In which all the main characters – the fictional ones, at any rate – are referred to by their initial letters. K, W, and so on.

I can’t say I fully understand Gödel’s theorems. My maths isn’t that good. I do love its implications, though. It underwrites and undermines the whole of computer theory; and, as someone who works in IT, I know from experience that computer theory hardly ever matters in real life. Someone once asked me, politely, to shut up, on a train, because I was trying to explain Gödel’s theory rather loudly to Δ. I hadn’t realised we were in the Quiet Coach. I try to reread Bernstein’s book every year or two, and not just for the Gödel chapter; clearly, though, it’s been a bigger influence on my own writing than I’d realised before.

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