Jim Holt has a new book out, a collection of essays entitled When Einstein Walked with Gödel. I wrote enthusiastically about his last book (Why Does the World Exist?) here and, if you have any interest at all in the overlap of mathematics, science and philosophy, I recommend this one just as highly. Holt is pretty much a unique example of someone able to regularly write about topics in this area in a manner that is both enlightening and entertaining.
This is a book of essays written on different topics for different venues, of too great a variety to try and itemize here. Most of them have some sort of connection to mathematics and philosophy, typically centering on one idea or one, often historical, figure. Holt loves to write about the most abstract of ideas (the subtitle of the book is “Excursions to the Edge of Thought”), but in the context of the particular very human qualities of the thinkers responsible for them. For example, an essay about von Neumann and his role in the building of an early computer at the IAS includes this description:
His passion for America’s open frontiers extended to a taste for large, fast cars; he bought a new Cadillac every year (whether he had wrecked the last one or not) and loved speeding across the country on Route 66. He dressed like a banker, gave lavish cocktail parties, and slept only three or four hours a night. Along with his prodigious intellect went (according to [his second wife] Klári) an “almost primitive lack of ability to handle his emotions.”
In a short essay discussing the thorny “demarcation problem” of how to distinguish science from non-science, Holt describes briefly the ideas of Paul Feyerabend (epistemological anarchism) and Imre Lakatos (progressive versus degenerating research programs). At the same time, he includes the story of their arguments over these ideas in the context of their personal friendship:
These friendly antagonists exchanged abundant letters on the matter, with a good deal of ribaldry–some of it of a sort that no longer evokes an easy smile. “I am very tired because my liver is acting up which is a pity, for my desire to lay the broads here (and there are some fine specimens walking around on campus) is considerably reduced,” Feyerabend wrote from Berkeley. The affection between them is much in evidence…
Philosophically, however, there is no detectable convergence in their positions over their years of correspondence. That is not surprising, really, given how vexed the demarcation problem is.
One of the essays included here is a slightly edited and updated version of a review of my book and Lee Smolin’s written back in 2006 for the New Yorker (my blog post about it is here). Of the many reviews of these books at that time, Holt’s seems to me the most accurate and insightful take on the two books and the issues they were trying to address.
For a very well-executed review of the new book at the New York Times, see here. Jerry Alper has an interview and discussion of the book here.
Bonus micro-review: Another book I just finished reading is Errol Morris’s The Ashtray, which is also about philosophy and science. Morris, one of my favorite filmmakers, started out a career as a Ph.D. student of Thomas Kuhn’s, and that did not go well. For more about the book, see reviews here and here. I’ll just comment that Kuhn seems to have done the world a favor by kicking Morris out of the Ph.D. program and changing his career path to one where he could make the wonderful films he is responsible for.
Perhaps this darker aspect of von Neumann’s personality got in the way of him being a celebrity like Einstein (or maybe John Nash is a better comparator). Everything I’ve read about him would seem to make him a contender for most intellectually gifted person alive when he was, if not of all time. One could hardly invent such a character: a polymath with near miraculous grasp of almost anything he apprehended, as fond of wearing expensive suits to any occasion as he was of partying, dirty jokes and driving like a maniac. The “mad genius” is a harmful stereotype, so I’m actually grateful, but I do wonder how Hollywood passed on him (ridiculous amalgams like Dr. Strangelove notwithstanding)
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