Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Eating ice cream in Naples

There are noticeboards immediately outside my office, where seminars in other faculties are advertised. It's often rather jaw-dropping what other people think it worth getting up to. For example, the History Faculty is running a series on “Consumption”, and the final meeting of the year is on “Paradigms of enlightenment and the consumption of ice cream in late eighteenth-century Naples”. Gosh. That sort of thing must be really demanding to do research on (and the library visits to Naples must be a bit of a pain too)!

Actually, I can see the topic might be quite amusing (and to be fair, it doesn't sound a positive intellectual disgrace, like some of the post-modern bullshitting that goes on around here). But still ....

I've talked to a couple of our grads in the last few days about the significance of the proof-theoretic ordinals for various extensions of first-order Peano Arithmetic, about whether you can diagonalize out of the hypercomputable functions (on various natural understandings of hypercomputation), and about Kripke semantics and set theory (the issue at dispute between Jonathan Lear and Alex Paseau). Or, let's be honest, the students in question sent me stuff/talked to me, and I nodded along trying to look slightly intelligent. I guess that outsiders would think this is an odd way for us to be spending our time too. But there is a difference, for all that. For this stuff is really difficult, requiring serious technical knowledge of the relevant maths, plus an even more serious amount of hard disentangling of intricate conceptual puzzles, and relates immediately to genuinely deep questions -- in this case, in the foundations of mathematics and computation. It requires a heavyweight amount of intellectual firepower to get to say anything sensible about these matters. While ice-cream eating patterns ...?

1 comment:

Chris Menzel said...

Or, let's be honest, the students in question sent me stuff/talked to me, and I nodded along trying to look slightly intelligent.

Hah! Reminds me of a gifted former student of mine who went on to do his graduate work with Harrington at Berkeley. As there were no logicians in the math dept (shameful at a uni the size of Texas A&M), over three years I "directed" four independent studies with him on first-order metatheory, set theory, model theory, and modal logic. He consumed the material so quickly and understood it so profoundly that, in each case, by mid-semester or so, our meetings had basically turned into seminars where he was the lecturer. :-)