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Last modified: Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Douglas R. Hofstadter

Distinguished Professor -- Founders Day 2007

Cognitive Science Program
Department of Comparative Literature
College of Arts and Sciences
Department of Computer Science
School of Informatics
University Graduate School
Indiana University Bloomington
Appointed to IU faculty, 1977
B.S., Stanford University, 1965
M.S., University of Oregon, 1972
Ph.D., University of Oregon, 1975

Douglas Hofstadter

Douglas Hofstadter

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A fitting description for Douglas Hofstadter is "Renaissance person." Though his Ph.D. is in physics and he was hired in computer science at IU, his intellectual explorations involve fields as diverse as mathematics, psychology, music, linguistics, and art. He is considered a pioneer in cognitive science—a field he has helped shape. "Doug is one of those rare people whose creative spirit transcends traditional boundaries," says Bipin Indurkhya, professor at the International Institute of Information Technology in Hyderabad, India.

Hofstadter's contributions to academia began with his doctorate in theoretical physics. His thesis research, published in Physical Review in 1976, concerned electrons in a crystal in a magnetic field. Hofstadter discovered the highly intricate pattern of their energy spectrum. Such structures later became known as "fractals," and this one, now called the "Hofstadter butterfly," was the first fractal discovered in physics. "His eponymous butterfly has become an established tool in the investigation of electrons in metals in magnetic fields," says Philip L. Taylor, Perkins Professor of Physics at Case Western Reserve University.

Hofstadter's first book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, an idiosyncratic exploration of self-reference and consciousness, won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award, and vaulted him to international prominence. Despite its pervasive wordplay, GEB has been translated into many languages (often with Hofstadter's direct personal involvement), and for nearly three decades has inspired worldwide interest in cognitive science.

"The impact of Gödel, Escher, Bach was like a creative bombshell exploding in the scientific and intellectual community," says J. Timothy Londergan, professor of physics at IU Bloomington. "It is not an exaggeration to say that entire generations of cognitive scientists have entered the profession under the influence of that extremely thought-provoking investigation into the fundamental mechanisms of thought and language," says Achille C. Varzi, professor of philosophy at Columbia University.

The 1981 anthology The Mind's I, which Hofstadter co-edited with philosopher Daniel C. Dennett of Tufts University, was selected as one of "100 or so books that shaped a century of science" by Scientific American.

From 1981 to 1983, Hofstadter wrote a monthly column for Scientific American. Entitled "Metamagical Themas" (an anagram of "Mathematical Games", his predecessor Martin Gardner's famous column), his column explored philosophy, creativity, art, language, artificial intelligence, and social issues. The columns were all reprinted, along with much extra material, in the 1985 book Metamagical Themas.

Hofstadter is noted for his development (with the Fluid Analogies Research Group, affectionately called "FARG") of computational models of cognition, and in these models, analogy plays the starring role. These projects have "set the gold standard for computational models of creativity," according to his faculty colleagues who nominated him for distinguished rank. Several of the models are described in the 1995 book Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies, which, amusingly, was the first book ever sold by Amazon.

Hofstadter is well known as a creator of ambigrams (a word he coined in 1983), which are calligraphic designs that have two distinct readings. In 1987 a book of 200 of his ambigrams, together with a long dialogue with his alter ego Egbert G. Gebstadter on ambigrams and creativity, was published in Italy.

Over his life, Hofstadter has composed some 35 short piano pieces, which were recorded in 1991 as a CD, and he has spoken widely about both human- and computer-created music.

"Whirly art," his unique form of visual art that makes concrete visual analogs to musical patterns, has appeared in several exhibitions to favorable reviews.

Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, published in 1997, is an extended reflection on the challenges and beauty of translation, particularly of poetry. In the late 1990's, Hofstadter undertook a new translation of Alexander Pushkin's novel in verse Eugene Onegin from Russian; to do this, he plunged himself intensely into the Russian language for several years. His jazzy verse translation, published in 1999, received warm accolades from Slavic scholars.

Hofstadter's ninth book, I Am a Strange Loop, an exploration of the nature of a human "I", is about to appear.

Hofstadter has achieved an international reputation as a brilliant, boundary-crossing scholar, but it will be some time before the extent of his influence on the world is known. "Professor Hofstadter has not only produced a prodigious amount of critically important research in diverse fields, but he and his work have influenced an entire generation of scientists and creative artists in ways that will take many experts several future generations to fully appreciate," says David Cope, professor of music at the University of California, Santa Cruz.