When Einstein Walked with Gödel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought

Jim Holt. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (384p) ISBN 978-0-374-14670-2
Inspired by the unlikely friendship of gregarious physicist Albert Einstein (1879–1955) and gloomy logician Kurt Gödel (1906–1978), who met at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study in 1943, Holt (Why Does the World Exist?) fills his fantastic essay collection with stories about eccentric geniuses and groundbreaking ideas at the intersection of science and philosophy. Two criteria link the essays: the first is “the depth, power, and sheer beauty of the ideas they convey,” and the second is what Holt calls the “human factor”—specifically that the ideas originated in the minds of people who led highly dramatic or even absurd lives. Einstein’s theory of relativity upended everyday notions about the world, in the same way that Gödel’s incompleteness theorems subverted notions about the abstract world of mathematics, and both men certainly lived dramatic lives—particularly Gödel, who starved himself to death under the delusional suspicion that everyone was trying to poison him. The men’s friendship provides a framework that leads readers to Victorian school teacher Edwin Abbott, whose satirical novella Flatland presages a look at other dimensions; computing pioneers Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing; fractal discoverer Benoit Mandelbrot; and Francis Galton, the creator of modern statistics, among others. Holt delivers this feast of wild genius, oddball thinkers, and sheer creativity in his signature accessible style of writing and playful tone. Agent: Chris Calhoun, Chris Calhoun Agency. (May)
Reviewed on: 02/12/2018
Release date: 05/15/2018
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