### Dangerous Knowledge

#### Posted by John Baez

It’s been around a while, so maybe you’ve already seen it… but I just heard about the BBC documentary called Dangerous Knowledge. According to the summary, it’s about “four brilliant mathematicians — Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing — whose genius has profoundly affected us, but which tragically drove them insane and eventually led to them all committing suicide”. And now you can see it on YouTube.

It sounds fun, or at least fun to complain about. Did Cantor really commit suicide? I thought he died of a heart attack. Was Ludwig Boltzmann a mathematician? I thought he was a physicist. And did Alan Turing commit suicide because his genius drove him insane? I thought it had something to do with the British government convicting him for homosexuality and punishing him by forcing him to take estrogen, which made him grow breasts.

But the documentary is more fun than the summary. I’m watching it right now. It’s charmingly dark and edgy, featuring lines like:

Cantor is wonderful because… it’s so crazy! It’s the equivalent of being on drugs.

What could the greatest mathematician of his century have seen that could have driven him insane?

If you have a friend who’s a goth, and you’re trying to explain to them why you like math, have them watch this.

Here’s the summary from the BBC website:

In this one-off documentary, David Malone looks at four brilliant mathematicians - Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing - whose genius has profoundly affected us, but which tragically drove them insane and eventually led to them all committing suicide.

The film begins with Georg Cantor, the great mathematician whose work proved to be the foundation for much of the 20th-century mathematics. He believed he was God’s messenger and was eventually driven insane trying to prove his theories of infinity.

Ludwig Boltzmann’s struggle to prove the existence of atoms and probability eventually drove him to suicide. Kurt Gödel, the introverted confidant of Einstein, proved that there would always be problems which were outside human logic. His life ended in a sanatorium where he starved himself to death.

Finally, Alan Turing, the great Bletchley Park code breaker, father of computer science and homosexual, died trying to prove that some things are fundamentally unprovable.

The film also talks to the latest in the line of thinkers who have continued to pursue the question of whether there are things that mathematics and the human mind cannot know. They include Greg Chaitin, mathematician at the IBM TJ Watson Research Center, New York, and Roger Penrose.

Dangerous Knowledge tackles some of the profound questions about the true nature of reality that mathematical thinkers are still trying to answer today.

At least right now, you can watch the show on YouTube:

(Thanks to André Joyal and Mike Stay for pointing out this show.)

## Re: Dangerous Knowledge

This old trope again? This is almost as bad as beating down .99999… = 1 again and again.

I posted a relevant excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s excellent book

Everything and Moreshortly after his ownfelo de sea year ago. As it concludes, “Saying that infinity drove Cantor mad is sort of like mourning St. George’s loss to the dragon: it’s not only wrong, but insulting.”