'Manic-depressive genius' anticipated discoveries, prof says

Robert Irwin of SUNY Oswego’s computer science faculty considers Emil L. Post “America’s unluckiest logician” and will explain why in his presentation at Quest on Wednesday, April 20.

His talk at 10:30 a.m. in Room 107 of Lanigan Hall will be one of 140 presentations at Quest, the annual symposium dedicated to faculty and student scholarly and creative activity that is celebrating it 25th anniversary this year.

Post, who died in his 50s in 1954, anticipated major 20th century mathematical breakthroughs generally credited to Kurt Godel and Alan Turing and laid the groundwork for major advances in linguistics made by Noam Chomsky, according to Irwin.

“He was a manic-depressive, one-armed genius,” Irwin said in an interview recently in his Snygg Hall office.

Hampered during periods of his life by his bipolar disorder, Post spent most of his career teaching at the City College of New York, where he had no support for his research.

“He taught four courses a semester. He had no clerical help. He shared an office,” Irwin said. “He did his research at his kitchen table.”

Yet he was a founder of the theory of recursive functions, which is a basis for modern proof theory and theory of machine computation. He was also an inspiring teacher whose students further advanced the field, Irwin said.

The incompleteness proof that Godel published in 1931, Post had worked out in 1922 while on a prestigious Proctor Fellowship at Princeton University, Irwin said. “He got there first,” he said.

Turing, inventor of the Turing machine, is regarded as the father of computer science, yet, Irwin said, “Post beat him to that. He had the equivalent machine.” The Oswego professor allowed that “Turing took the notion a bit further.”

Irwin has presented at Quest every year since he came to Oswego in 2002. He gave a talk on Post earlier this academic year at a meeting of the Canadian Mathematical Society.

For more information on Quest activities at SUNY Oswego, visit http://www.oswego.edu/questnews.

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(Posted: Apr 06, 2005)