Sunday, July 13, 2014

The mystery of nothingness

Yesterday evening, arriving home from a few days away, my wife found I package addressed to me. I don't get real post very often so this was quite exciting. I opened it up to find two identical gift wrapped packages. Opening them up I found two almost  identical books, entitled 'Being or Nothingness'. I say almost identical, because one of the books had a wax seal and string round it, and came in a box with my name and the number 1260 on it. The other could be opened easily, and had number 0027 and name Alvar Ellegård on it.

I opened the unsealed book this morning and read it through. It consisted of 21 pages of quotations and mysteries relating to Sherlock Holmes, Douglas Hofstadter,  Satre, Hermann Hesse, Kafka. the Bible, various philosophers, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and other literature. It claimed to be a riddle that could only be solved through careful study. I couldn't really see the answer, but it was written down the lines of Hofstedter's other work (he wrote Gödel, Esher and Bach), and I concluded that it could be some kind of part of his work. I heard Hofstedter talk in Uppsala a few years ago about the importance of analogy, and thought he could be trying to experiment down those lines.

I thought it might be a birthday present and I should solve it myself, so I didn't look it up on the Internet. But when I got nowhere my wife Lovisa looked it up. Apparently this is the second time it has come out. The first was in 2008 and there were various theories, from viral marketing, Christians trying to convince scientists of the error of their ways to it being the work of a mad psychiatrist from Gothenburg (where the package was sent from). Lovisa thinks its an art project. Jon Ronson apparently wrote about the mystery in a book on psychopaths. There is also a strange video about a student's encounter with Hofstadter that relates to the book. But no real answers. It appears that in the latest release it has been sent to Swedish media people and academics, and they have now made a Facebook group (in Swedish) to document what is known.

What is remarkable about the whole thing is the quality of the book. I get emails every day telling me that the sender has shown that pi is a rational number or solved the mystery of quantum physics or something. But his book is of extremely high quality print, with a very professional feel that gives no clear indication of what it is trying to achieve. You can see it online here, but this doesn't capture the way the whole package was constructed. It also gives the aura of a genuine mystery, with clues going in different directions. The small number of details on the internet also seem to lead in very diverse directions. I don't know the answer to the mystery, but it was certainly a fun thing to get in the post.

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