Raymond Smullyan


The following is taken from the Piano Society and other sources:

He has had a remarkably diverse sequence of careers. Fellow polymath Martin Gardner, former editor of Scientific American, has aptly described him as a “unique set of personalities that includes a philosopher, logician, mathematician, musician, writer and maker of marvelous puzzles.”

Born in 1919 in Far Rockaway, New York, Raymond’s first love was music. After winning the gold medal for the piano in the 1931 New York Music Week Association competition, he decided to make the piano his principal instrument.

Raymond's first teaching position was at Roosevelt College in Chicago, where he taught piano. At about that time he unfortunately developed tendonitis in his right arm forcing him to abandon piano performances as his primary career. As a result of this he turned his attention to mathematics, which he equally loved. He had learned most of this on his own, with very little formal education at the time. He then took a few advanced courses at the University of Chicago, and supported himself at the time as a professional magician! Curiously enough, before he had a college degree, or even a high school diploma, he received an appointment as a mathematics instructor at Dartmouth College on the basis of some brilliant papers he had written on mathematical logic.

After teaching at Dartmouth College for two years, the University of Chicago gave him a Bachelor of Arts degree, based partly on courses he had never taken, but had successfully taught. He then went to Princeton University for his Ph.D. in mathematics in 1959.

Raymond is now internationally known as a mathematical logician, having published six books and over forty research papers in the field. He is equally well known worldwide as a writer, having authored over twenty books, many of which have been translated into seventeen languages. His writings cover an amazing variety of subjects: Chinese Taoism; the psychology of religious and mystical consciousness; philosophical fantasies; recreational logic puzzles designed to introduce the general reader to deep results in mathematics; retrograde chess problems encapsulated into Sherlock Holmes and Arabian Nights stories; stereo photography; and, essays on various aspects of life.

Now retired as a distinguished professor of philosophy from Indiana University, Raymond resides in the beautiful upper region of the Catskill Mountains and has returned to music as one of his principal activities.

Raymond truly has the wisdom of a Zen Master and sage; the artistry and finesse of a musician and magician; the heart, creativity and eloquence of a poet; the insight and analytical skills of a logician and mathematician; and the wonder of a wizard.

Raymond speaking:

I would describe myself as more Apollian than  Dionysian--I prefer lyricism to drama. I am intensely interested in mysticism and religion, though I belong to no creed. I am interested in comparative religion--I would like to know what possible truth lies behind the various religions of the world. I believe that all religions are approaching the truth, but none have yet completely found it, The book that has had the most influence on me is COSMIC CONSCIOUSNESS by Richard Bucke, whose main theme is that a new type of consciousness is slowly coming to the human race through the process of evolution, and that the mystics and religious leaders of the past, as also many artists and poets, were cases of advanced cosmic consciousness. Bucke cites the writings of many of these people, and they are really marvellous! I cannot recommend this book too highly.

On questions of ethics, I am quite concerned about the prevalence of retributive ethics--the belief that evil-doers deserve to suffer for their evil. I believe this attitude is a major factor retarding the advance of civilization. I predict that the decline of retributive ethics, the decline in wars, and the decline in crime will come to the human race hand in hand.

Politically, I am an extreme liberal, but not about all issues--for example, I absolutely refuse to be "politically correct"! Indeed, I am an independent cuss, and my epitaph will be:


I was born in 1919 in Far Rockaway N.Y., a place I mournfully miss. My mother told me that when I was only a couple of months old, whenever I was wheeled outside in a baby carriage and heard a bird sing, I would sing back the very same note, from which she inferred that I had musical talent. When I was about three, I would go to the piano and improvise, usually in the key of F# major, and whatever I was playing, I would call "Happiness". One day, when I was four, my mother was in the next room on the telephone, and I went to the piano and played the first theme of "My Country T'is of Thee". She laughed pleasantly, and came over to me and said: "Let's play a little game. You turn your back and I'll strike a note, and you see if you can tell me what it is." She thus discovered that I had absolute pitch. I had this very well as a child, but have gradually lost it in my adulthood. At this point, I hear all notes 3 half steps too high. I understand that Alicia de Larroche has the same problem.

I must tell you of a cute incident when I was about two or three years old: I would sit on my grandfather's lap and loved to play with the smoke from his cigarette. Once he was not smoking, and I wanted him to, and so I kept saying: "Moke, Moke, Moke!" I repeated this many times, and so to distract me, he told me a long, long story. I listened quietly and patiently, and as soon as the story was over, I said: "Moke, Moke, Moke!" My grandfather smiled and said to my mother that this was a good indication of what I would be like when I grew up. My friends tell me that he was right--that I am still the same way!

During my boyhood my main interest was not music, but science. I built my own radio and I fitted out a nice chemical laboratory and I installed a neat wire connection between my house and the house next door of my friend. and we could communicate with each other. As for music, I studied both piano and violin. The day before I entered the New York Music Week Association Contest for the second time, I got up early before my parents awoke, and with my friend, we took the canoe, that we had built, down to the ocean. We didn't know that we were supposed to put lead on the keel, and so the boat overturned several times and dumped us into the water! My parents were horrified that I should have done this just before the day of the contest, but nevertheless, I won the gold medal.

In high school, I fell in love with mathematics and was torn between it and music. I played violin in the school orchestra, but soon gave up the violin in favor of the piano. Curiously enough, the only courses I ever failed in high school and college were in music! In the high school orchestra, the teacher who conducted told me that I played very well but nevertheless failed me! In Music Appreciation course, after I had accompanied a student who sang, and and after playing some solos, the teacher called me a "genius" and invited me to her house, where we played 4-hands, and at the end of the semester failed me! In college, I played the Beethoven concerto #1 with the university orchestra and got a rave newspaper review, and also the conductor spoke most highly of my playing to several people, and at the end of the semester, failed me! These are mysteries I have never solved.

I was a high school dropout and for several years I neither went to school nor had a job. I guess in those days I was generally regarded as an all around good for nothing! I recall that at one party someone asked me what I was doing these days, and I replied: "I'm waiting for the meek to inherit the earth." Actually, I was not at all as idle in those days as was generally thought, since those were the days in which I made my first mathematical discoveries and invented my first group of retrograde chess problems--a type of chess logic which I will say more about later.

I finally got into college by taking college board exams. In college I had difficulty in getting a tuition scholarship. since the deciding committee didn't look kindly on the eccentricity of a freshman taking graduate courses in mathematics. I got a scholarship only after my third try. Shortly before that, the pianist Gunnar Johansen, with whom I was then studying, said to me: "If they don't now give you a scholarship, I'll pay for your tuition myself." Fortunately he didn't have to, but I can never get over his kindness! I understand that he has financially helped several talented students.

At the University of Chicago, where I got my bachelor's degree, I worked my way through college as a close-up magician. People often asked me whether I have ever sawed any ladies in half. I would reply that I have sawed dozens of ladies in half, and I'm learning the second half of the trick now! I recall that in those days people would ask me why I didn't believe in astrology and I would reply: "Because I'm a Gemini."

I would have become a professianal pianist, had I not developed a bad case of tendonitis in my right arm. This settled my choice of career. I got my Ph.D. in mathematics at Princeton University. Since then I have taught at several universities, the last one being Indiana University, where I was given a distinguished ranks professorship.

I referred before to the chess problems of two of my books. How these books, as well as my other puzzle books, ever got written and published is a remarkable story involving a strange concatenation of circumstances: While I was a graduate student at Princeton, I showed one of my chess problems to my office mate, who then showed it to his father, who in turn sent the problem to the Manchester Guardian (a British newspaper) without crediting the problem to me or to anyone else. I never would have discovered this except for the remarkably fortuitous circumstance that a logician, who was visiting there at the time, to whom I had previously shown the problem, came to me and said: "How come your problem came out in the Manchester Guardian without being credited to you?" I then told this to my office mate, who told this to his father, who then wrote to the Manchester Guardian telling them that I was the author. Then (and this is equally curious!) several years later, my same problem came out in Martin Gardner's column in the Scientific American, but again not credited to me or anyone else! However, several days after it appeared, Martin received a letter from a mathematics professor saying: "This problem is due to Raymond Smullyan, who showed it to me several years ago when we were students together at the University of Chicago." Martin, who was familiar with several other of my problems, then wrote to me, urging me to make a book of these problems, which I then did. This then led to several other books of problems. Fate is really a strange thing! If either the logician in Princeton, or the mathematician who wrote to Gardner, had not spotted my problem, it is possible that my puzzle books might never have got written!

Another interesting and wonderful thing happened to me while I was at Princeton: I frequently visited New York City in those days, and on one of my visits, I met a very charming lady musician.     

At one point I used a very clever logic trick which caused her to owe me a kiss! Instead of collecting the kiss I suggested we play for double or nothing. She, being a good sport, agreed. So she soon owed me two kisses, then with another trick four, then eight, then sixteen--then things kept doubling and escalating and doubling and escalating, and before I knew it, I was married! And I've been married to Blanche, the charming lady musician, for 48 wonderful years. She was a pianist and teacher and headed a flourishing music school in New York City, where many instruments were taught, as well as theory and composition. She had an excellent staff, which included such musicians as the cellist Leonard Rose, the New York Woodwind Quintet and some members of the Juilliard Quartet.

Unfortunately Blanche passed away in 2006 at the ripe old age of 100 (though she looked no older than late seventies). I made a lovely documentary of her life in which she relates many remarkable incidents. There is one particularly moving incident which I would like to be widely known, because it shows how unexpectedly wonderful some people can sometimes be! When Blanche was a little girl in Belgium during the First World War, the Germans invaded Belgium and several German officers stationed themselves in her house. Then, in Blanche's own words, "One officer in particular sat by my side for hours while I was practicing, and when he went back to Germany on a furlough, on his return here, he--my so called "enemy"--brought me back wonderful gifts of rare and valuable music editions which we could never have afforded!"

I find this most touching! As one of my friends wisely remarked: "In music, there are no enemies."

For more about Raymond:
Download/view a free video, Rambles, Reflections, Music, and Readings (58:55 minutes, 380MB) at his page on the pianosociety.com website; view classical music performances by him on youtube.com; view his entry on Wikipedia.com; read about his wizardry in a story about a recent 2008 chance encounter with him titled, Meeting Raymond Smullyan; and, see a comprehensive listing of his books on amazon.com. For my article on Taoism and Zen see http://www.zenfortherestofus.com/.

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