A non-fictional man who would only speak using formal logic, a founding genius of computer science. Like Spock, he was much stranger than any ordinary alien. A student of his tells a disturbing story about a different but highly relevant kind of alienation.
According to his student Gian-Carlo Rota (who went on to become the founder of combinatorial algebra):
“The person lecturing to us was logic incarnate”
“His pauses, hesitations, emphases, his betrayals of emotion (however rare), and sundry other non verbal phenomena taught us a lot more logic than any written text could. We learned to think in unison with him as he spoke, as if following the demonstration of a calisthenics instructor”
Gian-Carlo Rota, (Princeton, mathematical logic class of ’51)
“He looked like a cross between a panda and a large owl, and spoke slowly in complete paragraphs which seemed to have been read out of a book, evenly and slowly enunciated, as by a talking machine.
For example, he would not say: “It is raining.”
He would say instead: “I must postpone my departure for Nassau Street, inasmuch as it is raining, a fact which I can verify by looking out the window.” (These were not his exact words.)
Those extraordinary quotes quickly sent me off to start diligently searching for videos of the man in question: Lambda Calculus discoverer and Functional Programming and Lisp inspiration Alonzo Church (who worked together with that other iconic father of computing Alan Turing: each of them thought the other one was the strangest!) that I could include in this article.
I didn’t find any videos featuring the man himself, but I found a video by another of his renowned students, Gary R. Mar (not Gary Mar the Canadian legislator) a major figure in US educational innovation based at Stony Brook University, New York.
An educational theme that interests Mar is the alienation of outsiders.
Alonzo Church‘s lectures on mathematical logic were seen as being in a ‘dead end field’ and were treated with incredulity and derision by his superiors (especially Lefschetz, the legendary ‘professor without any hands’ who revolutionised algebraic topology) and his peers at Princeton, so Church unquestionably knew what it was like to be an outsider (Lefschetz made it clear that was surprised and disappointed that Rota was ‘wasting his time’ attending Church’s lectures).
In the video below (which unfortunately stalls in YouTube after 38 seconds, but it’s worth being patient and waiting for about about 25 more seconds of buffering for it to continue) Mar opens up a whole world in the 20th century history of alienation that was completely new to me.
We’ve all heard of Ellis Island, where those emigrating from Europe waited to be allowed to start a new life in the United States. But I had never heard of Angel Island, where those arriving from Asia and elsewhere had what sounds like a much, much worse experience than their European counterparts.
Immigrants arriving between 1910 and the 1940’s were often detained there for years and scratched now-legendary poems on the walls.
Here’s a video about them:
Gary Mar himself is also interested in innovation in teaching philosophy at school (particularly teaching formal logic, using puzzles as a tool):
The Alonzo Church/Gian-Carlo Rota quotes are from this excellent web page, which also includes more anecdotes about Church and Lefschetz.