Perhaps Not Such a Brief Autobiographical Statement After All,

by Douglas Hofstadter

December, 2014

I was born in Manhattan in 1945, and as a tiny lad I adored the teeming, bustling metropolis, but any objections the lad might have raised when his parents were considering, in 1947, moving to the ivory-tower hamlet of Princeton, New Jersey were swiftly squelched. For the next three years, then, I was an orange-and black Princeton Tiger, living within jogging distance of Albert Einstein. Three years later, my father, an up-and-coming young physics professor, took a job at Stanford University, so way out west we moved — to California, where I grew up.

At age 8, inspired by my Dad’s research, I used to fantasize that I was a zeromass, spin-one-half neutrino — a heady experience! I also fell in love with math in those years (especially the magical numbers e, π, and i ). Our family spent my Dad’s first sabbatical year, 1958–1959, in Geneva, Switzerland — an experience that revolutionized my life, giving me not just a mastery of French but also an undying love for other cultures and languages.

I attended Stanford University in 1961–1965, receiving my B.S. with Distinction in mathematics. Ten pretty tough years later, I obtained my Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of Oregon. Since then, I have held faculty positions at Indiana University, Bloomington (1977–1984 and 1988–present) and at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (1984–1988). Today at Indiana University, I enjoy the honor of being called “College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Comparative Literature”.

As a math undergraduate at Stanford in the early 1960s, I explored many kinds of strangely-behaved integer sequences, including a crazy family that some years back was dubbed “meta-Fibonacci recursions”, and which has been carefully studied by a handful of number-theorists around the world. A few years later in math graduate school at Berkeley, I was shocked to discover that I had banged up against my abstraction ceiling in math and could go no further. The sudden realization that math was a dead end for me caused a huge upheaval in my life. After much soul-searching, I wound up taking a risky leap into particle physics at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Unfortunately, some five years of intense flailing-about in that surrealistic area of physics left me no choice but to bail out in despair, and this time I blindly leapt onto the rickety lifeboat of solid-state physics, a more down-to-earth discipline, but totally unknown territory to me. Thanks to several great strokes of good luck, I eventually had the enormous pleasure of discovering the first fractal ever found in physics (now usually known as the “Hofstadter butterfly”, though I always have called it “Gplot”).

While a graduate student, I devoted two to three hours every day to playing the piano, and at the same time, driven by a powerful inner fire that I can’t explain, I composed several dozen short pieces for that instrument, mixing romanticism with counterpoint and humor. Though small, these very personal self-expressions are among the creations of which I remain most proud.

Despite the fantastic windfall of discovering Gplot, I knew in my bones that physics was not the field for me. Although at age 8 I’d dreamt of being a neutrino, as an adult I somehow just couldn’t think like a real physicist. Luckily, I had an ace in the hole, which was my insatiable curiosity about the nature of thinking and creativity, and about how animate beings come out of inanimate matter. I was constantly brooding about these mysteries in my last few years in Eugene, and such musings led to my “retooling myself”, in the two years right after my physics Ph.D., to be an artificial-intelligence researcher. In 1977, I had the good fortune of being hired by Indiana University as a computer-science professor specializing in AI, and although I was very happy in my new field, I gradually realized that my fascination was not computers per se but the riddle of the human mind, and I found that the label “cognitive scientist” far more closely captured what I really was.

And thus, as a cognitive-science professor for the past three-plus decades, I have tried very hard, with my graduate students, to get computers to approximate the astonishing, gurgling stream of effortless, fluid analogy-making that constitutes human thought (as is explained in my book Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought, co-authored with members of the Fluid Analogies Research Group, and Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking, co-authored with French psychologist Emmanuel Sander). Although I have always seen mind, thinking, and consciousness as consequences of physical law, I am also a great believer in their extraordinary subtlety, and am thus hugely relieved that, despite all our best efforts, my research group’s models have always fallen wildly short of reaching anything like the human level. Most of my ideas, whether scientific or humanistic, have been published in books rather than articles, because I really love writing, crystal-clarity being my religion and jargon-avoidance being a key canon thereof. Aside from having penned a monthly column (“Metamagical Themas”) for Scientific American in the years 1981–83, I have explored the elusive notions of “I” and consciousness in my books Gödel, Escher, Bach (Pulitzer Prize, 1980), The Mind’s I (co-authored with philosopher Daniel Dennett) and, most recently, I Am a Strange Loop. I have also had the luxury of designing and typesetting most of my own books, allowing me to indulge myself to the hilt in various virtuosic acts of graphic design.

Nearly three decades ago, I plunged myself headlong into literary translation, which eventually resulted in my spending a full year (1998) creating a highly metrical and rhyming anglicization of Alexander Pushkin’s magical novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin. In addition, I have written two books on the art of translation: Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, inspired by the intricate challenge of translating structured poetry while preserving its form, and Translator, Trader, describing the plethora of paradoxes involved in translating a novel — in this case, La Chamade by Françoise Sagan.

I have a lifelong love for languages (their sounds, their symbols, their grammars, and their idioms, as well as their poems and their songs), and an endless fascination with speech errors, puns, and the nature of humor. With a little wink but quite truthfully, I call myself “pilingual”, my two strongest foreign languages being French (maybe 0.8, as compared with roughly 1.0 for my mastery of English) and Italian (maybe 0.7), with several other languages enjoying medium-sized to microscopic values. For instance, I have patiently struggled for decades to make my way up the towering mountain of Mandarin Chinese, but alas, I am still on its lower slopes, my proudest moment perhaps having come many years ago in Ann Arbor, when I won a Chinese tongue-twister competition for non-native speakers.

My teen-age intoxication with the marvelously curvilinear alphabets of India led me, in my twenties, to improvise hundreds of script-inspired line drawings on long and narrow scrolls, which my sister Laura humorously called “Whirly Art”, and I later savored the mysteries of calligraphy and alphabetic style through an art form that I called “ambigrams” (first explored by my childhood friend Peter Jones, then by Scott Kim, John Langdon, and myself, and today practiced by hundreds of people around the world), as well as “gridfonts” and “jazz scribbles”. In the past 30 years, I have had solo exhibitions of my artworks in Geneva, Genova, Milano, Calgary, Bloomington, New York, and one or two other cities.

I have two wonderful children — Danny and Monica — with my late wife Carol, who died very young and very unexpectedly in Verona, Italy in late 1993. Ever since 1994, when the children and I returned from Trento, Italy after our ill fated sabbatical year there, we have spoken Italian at home — a lasting tribute to their loving mother, who was Italian–American. In 2012, I had the joy of marrying Baofen Lin, who grew up in China (Hangzhou and Xi’an), who moved to the U.S. in her early thirties, and whom I was lucky enough to meet in a chacha class. Baofen and I sometimes speak Chinese together, but it is so damned hard!

Among my current passions is salsa (the music and especially the dance form, although I admit I am also quite fond of dipping crunchy tortilla chips into the spicy stuff and wolfing them down with glee).