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Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid [Paperback]

Douglas R. Hofstadter
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 1989
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this book applies Godel's seminal contribution to modern mathematics to the study of the human mind and the development of artificial intelligence.

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Product details

  • Paperback
  • Publisher: Vintage Books; Reissue edition (May 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0394756827
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394756820
  • Product Dimensions: 22.6 x 16.3 x 4.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 691,210 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Twenty years after it topped the bestseller charts, Douglas R Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is still something of a marvel. Besides being a profound and entertaining meditation on human thought and creativity, this book looks at the surprising points of contact between the music of Bach, the artwork of Escher, and the mathematics of Gödel. It also looks at the prospects for computers and artificial intelligence (AI) for mimicking human thought. For the general reader and the computer techie alike, this book still sets a standard for thinking about the future of computers and their relation to the way we think.

Hofstadter's great achievement in Gödel, Escher, Bach was making abstruse mathematical topics (such as undecidability, recursion, and "strange loops") accessible and remarkably entertaining. Borrowing a page from Lewis Carroll (who might well have been a fan of this book), each chapter presents dialogue between the Tortoise and Achilles, as well as other characters who dramatise concepts discussed later in more detail. Allusions to Bach's music (centring on his Musical Offering) and Escher's continually paradoxical artwork are plentiful here. This more approachable material lets the author delve into serious number theory (concentrating on the ramifications of Gödel's Theorem of Incompleteness) while stopping along the way to ponder the work of a host of other mathematicians, artists, and thinkers.

The world has moved on since 1979, of course. The book predicted that computers probably won't ever beat humans in chess, though Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1997. And the vinyl record, which serves for some of Hofstadter's best analogies, is now left to collectors. Sections on recursion and the graphs of certain functions from physics look tantalising, like the fractals of recent chaos theory. And AI has moved on, of course, with mixed results. Yet Gödel, Escher, Bach remains a remarkable achievement. Its intellectual range and ability to let us visualise difficult mathematical concepts help make it one of this century's best for anyone who's interested in computers and their potential for real intelligence. --Richard Dragan --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.


"Even without the contemporary relevance lent the book by the specter of global warming. The Little Ice Age would be an engrossing historical volume." --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
100 of 103 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It is big and it is clever 7 May 2007
This enormous book is a hymn to the "strange loop", a term coined by the author. Loosely, a strange loop occurs when, after moving up a level in a conceptual hierachy, one is brought strangely back to where one started. It's closely related to those paradoxes of self-reference which can occur when form and content become intertwined.

An example is the old joke about the park keeper angry that his park has been littered with leaflets entitled "Keep Britain Tidy". Another is building one computer system to test another computer system, and then needing a third system to test the one you've just built. Yet another is the Wikipedia entry of Douglas Hofstadter which, at the time of writing, contains a quote from Hofstadter stating that his Wikipedia entry is full of inaccuracies. (So, do you trust the entry enough to believe this quote claiming it's unreliable?) You get the idea.

Hofstadter sees these strange loops everywhere: in the music of Bach, the art of Escher and, most significantly, Gödel's incompleteness theorem, in which an algebraic system is used to prove a result about itself (rather than about numbers). After he's presented the various variations on these ideas, he then moves on to Artificial Intelligence, examining the "state of the art" as he sees it and discussing the implications of the earlier material for this subject.

Along the way he delves into various other diverse subjects such as the structure of the human brain or the challenges of translating a novel into different (human) languages. Much of this is fascinating stuff and if you are mathematically inclined, there is plenty to love about this book.

Given all the above, why not give the man 5 stars - what more could one possibly ask for?!
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing, brilliant, flowing...quite good, really 28 Jun 2000
This is a brilliant book. Back when I was in school, I used to borrow this book from the library during summer vacation, read it throughout the summer and return it in the autumn. For every year, I understood more and more :-) Mind, I was around 15-16 years old, so this was all new and exciting stuff. Now, several years later, I find that bits and pieces crop up in ordinary discussions - recursion, DNA/RNA mechanisms, fractals on a musical level, Zen philosophy,Number theory, AI and mind discussions - that I have long since gotten a sort-of grasp of, due to this book. This is also the book that led me to read "Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance" (another necessary book). Nowadays, 10 years later, I keep two copies of GEB on my shelf, one in english and one in swedish. Everybody need at least one...but you won't get mine!
I guess I should comment on the way tha hofstadter manages to mae the most complicated subjects understandable, how he manages to find links and analogies in very interesting places, how one can read the book again and again and still find new things to ponder...But I won't. You need this book. Your brain need this book. If you haven't read it yet, Do.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very clever, very readable 4 Feb 2006
‘GEB’ is a hodge-podge of maths, philosophy, music, art and computer science, centred around a single idea that was captured mathematically in the early 20th century. known as Gödel’s theorem. It is difficult to describe briefly (indeed it takes a few hundred pages for it to become clear in the book) but it is, basically, an idea which states that it is impossible to have a complicated system governed by formal rules in which everything which is supposed to be in the system is described by those rules, and those rules alone are sufficient. Although Gödel’s theorem refers to number theory specifically, he realised that it would also apply to anything which could be described in number theory which, as Hofstadter demonstrates, is pretty much everything. Thus, things that we like to think of as being governed by formal rules (up to and including our own thought) actually can’t be. This expansion of Gödel’s theorem is mind-blowing.
Although ‘GEB’ follows the development of a mathematical idea, the book doesn’t require the reader to have a great maths brain. Hofstadter approaches Gödel’s theorem obliquely from all angles (particularly maths, music and art), partly because it has implications for all of these, but partly because it is so difficult to think about it directly that indirectly thinking about its implications is the easiest way of understanding it. (Hofstadter draws an informative analogy with Zen Buddhism, in that it is very Un-Zen to study Zen directly). He builds up a huge array of analogous systems with which to think about the problem, but builds them up so skilfully that you start to see the relationships between them easily, and flipping between music, art and maths becomes conceptually simple.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Probably the most influential book I have read 17 Sep 2000
I first read this book as a budding software engineer. It inspired me to a lifelong interest in logic, AI and cognitive science, twenty years later I am still on that road and on my third copy having worn out two previously - maybe I should get a hardback edition! Be warned this book may change your life, certainly it was an intellectual watershed for me. Read it.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Best of the 20th century
Okay... maybe that's going too far, but this is invaluable reading for pretty much anyone who is interested in anything. Hofstadter's masterpiece. Read more
Published 3 months ago by ALyre
5.0 out of 5 stars The most enlightening mindscrew i've ever read
Douglas Hofstadter brings mathematics, arts and music together to explain the basis and building of conciousness. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Gui
5.0 out of 5 stars Everyhting I wanted it to be
This book reminds me of an album I once bought - Darkness Descends by Dark Angel.
It was so noisy and intense, that even at the height of my thrash metal phase, I could only... Read more
Published 7 months ago by MAttBon
5.0 out of 5 stars GEB anniversary edition
Iconic literary masterpiece from the next decade to "Zen and the art of motorcycle maintanence".Brilliant and a must have for all philosophy lovers
Published 9 months ago by jacqui a
3.0 out of 5 stars Apparently a good read and very interesting.
However, I bought this for my wife and have not read it. She says it is an excellent read with many insights.
Published 18 months ago by D. Clarke
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful
My favorite book ever! Well worth a look at for anyone interested in logic. It is a little hard to read and understand at times but I know I will go back to this book again and... Read more
Published 18 months ago by Lou
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting
This book uses the Goedel Incompleteness Theorem as a starting point to define what the author calls "strange loops". Read more
Published 22 months ago by Julie Weber
1.0 out of 5 stars Godel Esher Bach Review
Having read something about the publication: 'Godel Escher Bach', I was pretty disappointed with the contents. Read more
Published on 28 Jun 2012 by Insect
4.0 out of 5 stars A bit too clever for it's own good
Just finished reading this book, and my first impressions are this: reading Godel, Escher and Bach is a bit like running a marathon. Read more
Published on 25 Jun 2012 by Mr. A. Milne
5.0 out of 5 stars The fun of paradoxes
I am doing paradoxes in art for my Masters and this is a key book. I've always been fascinated in strange loops but terrible at maths, and so my mind tends to glaze over anything... Read more
Published on 3 April 2012 by example
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