Metamagical Themas

Douglas Hofstadter

"…highly informative and delightfully entertaining. It is even better than G6del, Escher, Bach."

Author of What Is The Name of This Book?

In this scholarly, entertaining, and provocative book named after his recent column in Scientific American, Douglas Hofstadter has collected 33 essays and woven them together with elaborate postscripts. All "Metamagical Themas" columns are included, as well as seven other pieces. Despite its wide range of topics, Metamagical Themas possesses a strong sense of unity, thanks to the author's painstaking efforts, in the postscripts, to spell out connections, cross-references, and implicit ideas.

The primary concern, permeating virtually every page, is how people perceive and think. Hofstadter explores the fluidity of human analogical thought and perception, along with strategies for making machines that perceive, create, and feel. His essays range from self-describing sentences in French to sexist language in Chinese; from a sober condemnation of public "innumeracy" to an enthusiastic soliloquy on the infinite richness of the alphabet; from genetic evolution to its software counterpart, "memetic" evolution; from experiments with the Prisoner's Dilemma to the beautiful mathematical shapes knows as "strange attractors"; from quantum-mechanical quarks to Rubik's-cubical quarks. Hofstadter asks how musical and visual patterns can stir our emotions; how we manage to sift the true from the false, the relevant from the irrelevant, the meaningful from the meaningless.

A second concern that at first simply weaves its way in and out but that in the end becomes a vital focus of the book is humanities' increasingly weird flirtation with self-extinction, and the stunning degree of apathy toward this situation that most thoughtful people exhibit.

Hofstadter grapples with this disturbing paradox of the human condition: creativity at the individual level vying with self-destructivity at the group level. Repeatedly, he shows us how mathematics, physics, and biology are rife with metaphors that can help us to make sense of the complex and confusing world we live in, and to choose saner courses of action.

Balanced between art and science, magic and logic, humor and rigor, Metamagical Themas represents one person's earnest search for a graceful merging of intellect and spirit.


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