Aviva Reads GEB, Part 0+1

“Every few decades, an unknown author brings out a book of such depth, clarity, range, wit, beauty and originality that it is recognized at once as a major literary event.”

Martin Gardner, Scientific American book review

This is simply the best and most beautiful book ever written by the human species.”

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, AI researcher

“I picked up this book thinking from the title and content it would be the greatest thing ever…. Little did I know that after a few pages I would want to hang myself with the eternal golden braid.”

Goodreads review by exoduslaughing

Like many other nerds on the internet, I recently read and enjoyed The Atlantic‘s profile of Douglas Hofstadter. (Here it is.)

In case you missed it, the SparkNotes story of Hofstadter is this: Brainy physics graduate student goes on a cross-country drive to find himself. At night, he ponders the mysteries of the human brain, particularly what it means to be alive and conscious. He starts writing his ideas down in a letter. Seven years later, in 1979, that letter turned into an enormous, Pulitzer-winning book about artificial intelligence.

Godel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid garners high praise — from those who manage to complete it. For one thing, the damn thing is 824 pages long. For another, it’s notoriously dense. Even Justin Curry, the instructor for MIT’s online course about GEB, admits that it took him about seven years to finish.

A quick Google search for “godel escher bach hard to read” turns up thousands of hits, as well as this charming video.

So obviously, I had to get a copy.

I’ll be posting updates under the Aviva reads GEB tag here on The Raptor Lab. I’m also going to try to use any resources that are already out there. Here’s what I’ve turned up so far:

* MIT OpenCourseWare class on GEB with corresponding notes and online video lectures
* UMich course notes for What is Mathematics?
* This GEB subreddit (although it looks like a ghost town now)
* Huge background resource from some guy named Mårten Stenius

To get us started, here’s a little about the first chapter and one of GEB’s main men…

The book begins by waxing pretty on Bach’s ‘The Musical Offering’, also known as ‘Ricercar a 6’. Pianist Charles Rosen calls this piece one of the greatest achievements of Western European civilization:

It can be appreciated above all by the performer: listening is only a poor second for the musical experience of immersing oneself actively in the polyphony, which here has an emotional and physically expressive impact rarely found in a work of music. It is a piece for meditation. The large-scale form is easy to grasp, and the texture is full and complex, moving from one to six voices and back with wonderful contrast. The composition does not emphasize contrapuntal virtuosity, but rather richness of harmony. The imaginative invention is dazzling. 

Original sheet music for Bach's Ricercar a 6.

Original sheet music for Bach’s Ricercar a 6.

For the musically ignorant readers like myself, Hofstadter takes pains to explain exactly what it is that makes the piece so great. The very short version is

1. ‘The Musical Offering’ is a fugue.
2. A fugue is a piece of music that takes a single theme (one recognizable melody) and then messes around with it in different ways. This can mean making the theme faster or slower, or maybe changing the pitch, or maybe making it play backwards.
3. Most fugues have two or three “voices” = two or three different alterations on the theme.
4. ‘The Musical Offering’ has six voices.
5. Hofstadter says: One could probably liken the task of improvising a six-part fugue to the playing of sixty simultaneous blindfold games of chess, and winning them all. To improvise an eight-part fugue is really beyond human capability.

But, you know, writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It’s much easier to listen and watch the voices weave together.

Until next time.

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