Dangerous Knowledge: 4 Brilliant Mathematicians & Their Drift to Insanity

We’re bringing back by popular demand Dangerous Knowledge, the BBC’s 90-minute documentary that takes a close look at four mathematicians – Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing – whose thinking profoundly influenced modern mathematics but also drove them (or so the program argues) to insanity and eventually suicide. Cantor gave us “set theory.” Boltzmann made important contributions in the fields of statistical mechanics and statistical thermodynamics. Gödel is remembered for his incompleteness theorems. Turing built on Gödel’s work and laid the foundation for computer science. They all spent their difficult final years in various states of mental decline. You can find Part 2 here.

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Comments (6)
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  • Carter Caldwell says:

    Mathematicians and insanity! Having recently read A Beautiful Mind and having seen the movie recently, it makes you wonder why do mathematicians go insane? The book revolved around the life of John Nash, as you all may know, and though it may have been a pre-existing condition, it makes you wonder why are all great mathematicians mad.

  • Rich McMullen says:

    I find it hilarious that you tell us about how these great mathematicians went insane and then go right to offering to teach us mathematics…thanks!

  • This the type of documentary I was looking forward to this past summer! Awesome video, thank you for sharing it :D

  • Ozogg says:

    Surely this OP is delinquent ?

    The term “insanity”, and its proper measure, are the most difficult to justify – even to professionals.

    And even then, it is almost criminal to employ that term in a Boolean (100% true, vs 0% true) fashion.

    Thus there exist subtleties of :
    – category definition
    – category degree.

    Over-simplistic ON/OFF definitions (and consequent categorisations) actually reveal another kind of mental affliction – idiocy !

    Yes, some great minds can “think quite differently” to the masses. Yet these great minds might not be insane, rather the masses might be insane (for not seeing a truth that eventually becomes adopted by the masses).

    Some of these great ideas become canons of truth, which dramatically illustrates which it is that might be insane, or not, if one uses “insane” as “detached from reality” (however defined).

    The OP should be mocked endlessly.

  • John T says:

    Maybe they finally understood the meaning of the word ‘inifinity’ and the thought alone of inifinity drove them to insanity. Our minds aren’t suppose to understand that concept… A kind of self protection mechanism which they broke.

  • SimplyFred says:

    Solving equations is the most intellectually demanding task in the world. Mathematicians, while solving equations are not, they cannot be ‘insane’ (sic). Some mathematicians find themselves the victims of people with second or third rate IQ’s who have to believe the mathematician sitting next to them is emotionally troubled.

    From the very first day in the very first university, Mathematicians have always had their own buildings. It has to be that way.

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