The Ouroboros, The Recursive Lizard, and Strange Loops

I was reading Reddit the other day and saw a link proclaiming that “the Ouroboros is real!”. Having no idea what this was, I clicked through, and found pictures of a lizard that basically eats it’s own tail when threatened, protecting it’s belly.

Hitting up Wikipedia, I found out that the Ouroboros is a concept that’s been around for years — even Plato is cited as having talked about it. The philisophical idea that it represents seems to be things that come out of themselves; that create and build on themselves; or going backwards, things that “eat” themselves. Things that after they’re done, are the same as when they started. If you were so inclined, you could look at human life like this, where every human essentially has to come from a previous human. This is why the start of human life is such an interesting question.

I find things like this very interesting, especially after reading “An Eternal Golden Braid,” which is a book that is really special in Computer Science. It’s a very large and very intricate book, filled with inside jokes, and another level of inside jokes from there. But it explains some really advanced CompSci concepts through simple stories.

One of the more interesting things in CompSci is recursion, which is a way of solving certain types of problems that involves taking a question, and continually breaking it down into simpler questions, until each simple question has a simple answer, then combining all the simple answers to get an answer to the original question. The trick is that at each level, the simple question is the same type of question as the one that created it, and the same as the question that it will create. For example, if you had 10 people’s names to sort alphabetically, and you split those 10 names into 2 groups of 5, you’d still be alphabetically sorting, but a smaller amount.

This sorting technique is the type of thing that recursion is good at. “Eternal Golden Braid” refers to these type as “strange loops”, because when you break down a question into smaller questions, and end up with the same question, you’ve got something that “eats” itself. Like the Ouroborus — the Recursive Lizard.

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