Bring vor, was wahr ist.
Schreib so, dass es klar ist.
Und verficht’s, bis es mit dir gar ist.
Dangerous Knowledge is a 90-minute long BBC documentary about the lives of four great thinkers: Georg Cantor (1845-1918), Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906), Kurt Gödel (1906-1978), and Alan Turing (1912-1954). Cantor founded Set Theory, Boltzmann founded Statistical Mechanics, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems had an immense impact on Mathematical Logic, and Turing was one of the fathers of Computer Science. Why these four scientists? What is the pattern? The answer is that all four of them committed suicide.
The documentary is a bit too sensationalist for my taste. Its message is that these four brilliant minds were driven to madness (and, ultimately, to suicide) due to the earth-shattering nature of their ideas. While one could argue that such a claim is not too far-fetched in the cases of Cantor and Boltzmann, it seems somewhat distasteful when applied to Turing. Turing did not go insane because of the depth of his revolutionary insights. Turing’s homosexuality was viewed as a security problem during the troubled times of the Cold War, and the brutal punishment which he underwent (chemical castration) was probably what led him to take his life. Gödel feared that someone was poisoning his food, and would refuse to eat unless his wife would taste his food first. When his wife was hospitalized for some time, Gödel starved himself to death. Hence, the claim that these four suicides were due to “dangerous knowledge” seems rather crude to me.
On the bright side, the claim that these four geniuses were ahead of their time sounds rather plausible. Cantor’s or Boltzmann’s ideas did not meet fierce resistance because they were technically wrong, but because they challenged the belief that the universe was perfect and orderly. No one wanted to hear about Boltzmann’s work on entropy, because entropy is, by definition, a measure of disorder. As Hilbert’s program tried to fix the inconsistencies in the foundations of Mathematics, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems made Hilbert’s monumental mission “wir müssen wissen, wir werden wissen” seem even harder to accomplish.
In my most humble opinion the times were not yet ripe for theories that imposed limitations on human knowledge. “What about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle?”, I hear you ask. Good point. Do note that two decades can make a world of difference. Heisenberg’s work was created when Quantum Mechanics was already out of the box. By contrast, Boltzmann had to fight the 19th Century establishment that was still deeply entrenched in the Newtonian paradigm.
If you have a couple of hours, here are the documentary’s videos: