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From Jim Holt, the New York Times bestselling
author of Why Does the World Exist?, comes an entertaining and
accessible guide to the most profound scientific and mathematical ideas
of recent centuries in When Einstein Walked with Gödel:
Excursions to the Edge of Thought
.

Does time exist? What
is infinity? Why do mirrors reverse left and right but not up and down?
In this scintillating collection, Holt explores the human mind, the
cosmos, and the thinkers who’ve tried to encompass the latter with the
former. With his trademark clarity and humor, Holt probes the mysteries
of quantum mechanics, the quest for the foundations of mathematics, and
the nature of logic and truth. Along the way, he offers intimate
biographical sketches of celebrated and neglected thinkers, from the
physicist Emmy Noether to the computing pioneer Alan Turing and the
discoverer of fractals, Benoit Mandelbrot. Holt offers a painless and
playful introduction to many of our most beautiful but least understood
ideas, from Einsteinian relativity to string theory, and also invites us
to consider why the greatest logician of the twentieth century believed
the U.S. Constitution contained a terrible contradiction―and whether
the universe truly has a future.


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

3

Feb 27, 2019

This essay collection was—as many such collections are apt to be—a very mixed bag. Quite a few of the essays, such as the titular piece, were compelling, informative, thought provoking compositions. However, in what felt like an attempt to produce a book that had “Something for everyone!”, the author proved himself to be a jack of all trades, but a master of none; much of the content was unfortunately superficial, unsystematic, and ultimately a bit disappointing. Still, plenty of these articles This essay collection was—as many such collections are apt to be—a very mixed bag. Quite a few of the essays, such as the titular piece, were compelling, informative, thought provoking compositions. However, in what felt like an attempt to produce a book that had “Something for everyone!”, the author proved himself to be a jack of all trades, but a master of none; much of the content was unfortunately superficial, unsystematic, and ultimately a bit disappointing. Still, plenty of these articles are worth looking at, so if you don’t mind sifting through a fair amount of unexceptional material, you’ll be rewarded with some rather intriguing gems. ...more
3

Aug 11, 2018

If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review.


Sock Theory vs. String Theory: "When Einstein Walked with Gödel - Excursions to the Edge of Thought" by Jim Holt


My contribution to Holt’s Edge of Thoughts in the form of an article too:

An unauthorised and short version of physics.

How did scientists first deduce that the universe had hidden dimensions, dimensions that are curled up so tight we can't see them? Until recently SOCK THEORY was the ruling paradigm. It was thought that If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review.


Sock Theory vs. String Theory: "When Einstein Walked with Gödel - Excursions to the Edge of Thought" by Jim Holt


My contribution to Holt’s Edge of Thoughts in the form of an article too:

An unauthorised and short version of physics.

How did scientists first deduce that the universe had hidden dimensions, dimensions that are curled up so tight we can't see them? Until recently SOCK THEORY was the ruling paradigm. It was thought that Theodor Kaluza and Oscar Klein deduced the existence of at least one additional dimension from well known tendency of socks to disappear and then re-appear in unlikely places. How else to explain the mysterious behaviour of hosiery? Latterly a new paradigm, STRING THEORY, has superseded sock theory. Leave a length of string or anything long, thin and flexible lying undisturbed for even a day and you will find it has somehow got itself tied into knots. This can only be explained if we assume at least one additional dimension. String theory also gave birth to QUANTUM FIELD THEORY.


The rest of this review can be found elsewhere. ...more
5

Dec 21, 2018

A delightful set of 24 standard essays and 14 brief ones (a page or so) on the history of physics and math and current views on their relations. The essays highlight issues with Einstein’s theory of relativity (special and general), quantum mechanics, group theory, infinity and the infinitesimal, Turing’s theory of computability, Goedel’s incompleteness theorems, prime numbers and the Riemann zeta conjecture, category theory, topology, fractals, and the theory of truth. There are no equations, A delightful set of 24 standard essays and 14 brief ones (a page or so) on the history of physics and math and current views on their relations. The essays highlight issues with Einstein’s theory of relativity (special and general), quantum mechanics, group theory, infinity and the infinitesimal, Turing’s theory of computability, Goedel’s incompleteness theorems, prime numbers and the Riemann zeta conjecture, category theory, topology, fractals, and the theory of truth. There are no equations, so we have to count on him to convey major discoveries and conflicting interpretations in words alone without distorting the truth. From a modest experience with the subject (a college course on quantum mechanics long ago and reads in recent years of popularizations by real physicists), I feel comfortable with Holt’s knowledge and competence as a science journalist. He achieved his goal of covering a lot of subjects on various themes:
My ideal is the cocktail-party chat: getting across a profound idea in brisk and amusing way to an interested friend by stripping it down to its essence …The goal is to enlighten the newcomer while providing a novel twist that will please the expert. And never to bore.

Successfully conveying the human aspects for all these figures is another skill that helped spur me onward. As a tiny example, the Nobel Prize winning physicist John Wheeler wondered is anyone made a theoretical connection between Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Goedel’s incompleteness theorem, so he knocked on Goedel’s door at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. Goedel, huddled over a space heater, promptly threw him out.

Often there is a tragic element in the lives of the figures. Many of us are aware of Alan Turing’s sad state after WW2 due to the 2014 film, “The Imitation Game”, with his contributions to code-breaking kept secret, his persecution by “chemical castration” for being gay, and eventual suicide by poison apple. Holt tries to rectify the film’s inaccurate portrayal of him a “as a humorless and timorous nerd.” Here are a few more examples of nutters among the brilliant:

The creator of the theory of infinity, Georg Cantor, was a kabbalistic mystic who died in an insane asylum. Ada Lovelace, the cult goddess of cyber feminism … was plagued by nervous crises brought on by her obsession with atoning for the incestuous excesses of her father, Lord Byron. …Kurt Goedel, the greatest of all modern logicians, starved himself to death out of the paranoic belief that there was a universal conspiracy to poison him.

Holt takes a strange excursion with novelist David Foster Wallace’s 300-page exposition (“Everything and More”) on Cantor’s 19th century accomplishment in using set theory to prove some infinities and bigger than others, in effect creating a whole tower of infinities. Holt finds he succeeded in his goal of improving on “certain recent pop books that give such shallow and reductive accounts of Cantor’s proofs …the math is distorted and its beauty obscured” and “if he was sometimes in over his head, it is because he chose to wade through the deepest waters”. In contrast to Wallace’s admiration, Wittgenstein found that:

There is nothing awesome about the theory; it does not describe a world of timeless, transcendent, scarcely conceivable entities; it is really no more than a collection (finite) tricks of reasoning. One might imagine, Wittgenstein said, the theory of infinite sets was “created by a satirist as a kind of parody of mathematics”. …As a description of Cantor’s work on infinity, it is surely unjust. As a description of Wallace’s, it might be taken as a tribute.

Basically, Holt trusts the average man to appreciate major problems in physics. So many mathematicians wax poetic about the connection between beauty of their theorems and equations and truth. A new kind of Platonism is alive and well among many of the wizards, i.e. a belief that mathematicians are not inventing their formulas but are discovering timeless truths beyond space and time. However, for Holt:

The problem with this Platonist view of mathematics … is that it makes mathematical knowledge a miracle. If the objects of mathematics exist apart from us, living in a Platonic heaven that transcends the physical world of space and time, then how does the human mind “get in touch” with them and learn about their properties and relations? Do mathematicians have ESP? The trouble with Platonism, as the philosopher Hilary Putnam has observed, “is that it seems flatly incompatible with the simple fact that we think with our brains, and not with immaterial souls.”.

Not all mathematical proofs are elegant. In the case of the “Four Color Problem”, the proof that any map of geometrical elements can be colored with four colors without any adjacent regions getting a common color took over 700 pages of arguments and a zillion computer calculations of all the permutations. Conversely, beautiful elegant equations can lead one astray. In the case of string theory, we have a brilliant mathematical system based on vibrating membranes in nine dimensions which aims to unify the major laws of physics. It has captured the imagination and life efforts of many theoretical physicists for three decades. Because of the inaccessible six extra dimensions, experimental tests of the theory have not been possible. Moreover:
In a space of more than three dimensions, there would be no stable planetary orbits. (This was proved over a century ago by Paul Ehrenfest). Nor would there be stable orbits for electrons within atoms. Therefore, there could be no chemistry, and hence no chemically-based life forms, in a world of more than three spatial dimensions. …
So it should not come as a surprise that we find ourselves living in a three-dimensional world. (Physicists call this “anthropic” reasoning). …And we can surely sympathize with the aspiration of Mr. Square [a 2-D character in “Flatland”]—not to mention assorted Theosophists, Platonists, and cubists—to rise up into the splendor of the fourth dimension and beyond. But we need not follow them. For intellectual richness and aesthetic variety, a world of three dimensions is world enough.

I also learned some more about Einstein’s long struggle to pin down what was wrong with the standard model of quantum mechanics. Instead, of simply objecting to it on the basis of core uncertainties in reality (“God does not play dice with the universe”), he made a significant contribution in revealing it to violate the fundamental principle of locality, which posits “that the world consists of separately existing physical objects and that these objects can directly affect one another only if they come into contact” or “through causal intermediaries that bridge the distance between them.” His collaborative thought experiment known as EPR in 1927 proposed an electron in a box which then gets partitioned and the two halves moved far apart; according to the standard theory, opening one box to detect the electron, collapsing the probability wave, is predicted to instantaneously to cause the other box to be empty, a “spooky action at a distance” he took as evidence of the theory’s insufficiency. Unfortunately for Einstein’s stubborn resistence, John Stewart Bell much later designed a variant of EPR involving paired photons which allowed experimental testing. So called quantum entanglement between particles was indeed proven to involve “spooky action at a distance” according to at least three replication Thus, we must accommodate a new conception of space and the possibilities of some kind of “holistic” principle.

One chapter that was especially entertaining has Holt running around and asking notable physicists how the universe and humanity will end. Recent changes in cosmology have shaken people up. For a long time the Big Bang and movement of galaxies away from each other was predicted to be slowed by gravitational attraction, perhaps leading to a Big Crunch and another cycle. I empathize with little Alvy in Woodie Allen’s “Annie Hall”, who was much distressed with an expanding universe, despite reassurances of his psychiatrist and mother that things are safe for zillions of years and Brooklyn shows no signs of expanding. Now with unknown “dark energy” causing everything to accelerate away from each other, we are back to the idea of a “heat death”, where all matter is scattered and degraded to a virtual nothing (unless dark energy runs out of steam). Most physicists don’t really worry how all will end, while others project we will overcome the problems such as adapting ourselves to energy forms in a dust cloud or by building quantum tunneling devices to move us to another universe. In my case, I appreciate Holt’s use of the anthropic principle and a Copernician assumption of humans as not so special and likely in the Bell curve of the normal distribution to predict a duration of humankind as at most a few millions of years, in line with other mammalian species.

All in all a fun read and I think accessible to most general readers.
...more
5

Jun 24, 2018

Another good book by Jim Holt he seems interested by the same questions I am we mostly see things similarly (a major exception Mathematical Platonism) and I like his writing style. Here Holt takes on topics of Philosophy, Mathematics, Physics, and Cosmology and he entertains and enlightens. Good stuff.
2

Mar 08, 2019

I agree with this review. Worse, I did not manage to finish the book since the quality/interest went rapidly down hill in the second half.

The first story on the relationship between Einstein and Godel is not uninteresting but lots more detail can be found in this book which contains an account of his wife's life.

A minor quip on the hilarious Boganov scandal: Wikipedia confirms that the bogus articles were not about string theory as the author mistakenly claims, probably because there was a I agree with this review. Worse, I did not manage to finish the book since the quality/interest went rapidly down hill in the second half.

The first story on the relationship between Einstein and Godel is not uninteresting but lots more detail can be found in this book which contains an account of his wife's life.

A minor quip on the hilarious Boganov scandal: Wikipedia confirms that the bogus articles were not about string theory as the author mistakenly claims, probably because there was a stray reference to an article by a string theorist in the bibliography.

By the time another section started explaining for the second time the unimpressive 'Copernican' principle, I had enough and put the book aside. All in all, a disappointment. ...more
4

Mar 10, 2019

Contents:

Part 1: the Moving Image of Eternity
Time---the Grand Illusion?

Part 2: Numbers in the Brain, in Platonic Heaven, and in Society
Sir Francis Galton, the Father of Statistics---and Eugenics

Part 3: Mathematics, Pure and Impure
A Mathematical Romance

Part 4: Higher Dimensions, Abstract Maps
Geometrical Creatures

Part 5: Infinity, Large and Small
Georg Cantor v. David Foster Wallace

Part 6: Heroism, Tragedy, and the Computer Age
The Ada Perplex: Was Byron's Daughter the First Coder?
Alan Turing in Contents:

Part 1: the Moving Image of Eternity
Time---the Grand Illusion?

Part 2: Numbers in the Brain, in Platonic Heaven, and in Society
Sir Francis Galton, the Father of Statistics---and Eugenics

Part 3: Mathematics, Pure and Impure
A Mathematical Romance

Part 4: Higher Dimensions, Abstract Maps
Geometrical Creatures

Part 5: Infinity, Large and Small
Georg Cantor v. David Foster Wallace

Part 6: Heroism, Tragedy, and the Computer Age
The Ada Perplex: Was Byron's Daughter the First Coder?
Alan Turing in Life, Logic, and Death

Part 7: The Cosmos Reconsidered
The String Theory Wars: Is Beauty Truth?

Part 8: Quick Studies, A Selection of Shorter Essays

Part 9: God, Sainthood, Truth, and Bullshit
Dawkins and the Deity
On Moral Sainthood
Say Anything

"These essays were written over the last two decades. I selected them for their depth, power, and sheer beauty of the ideas they convey." Copyright 2018 ...more
4

Sep 04, 2018

This is a new book of essays/columns/short pieces by an accomplished writer about philosophy. The core essays make it clear that Holt is focusing on the philosophy of science, although the collection is rounded out to include several short reviews, as well as work on the philosophy of language and naming and even the philosophy of BS.

I am never quite sure what to think of writings like this. To start with, the philosophy of science is not science. If you have any doubts, go read one of Einstein This is a new book of essays/columns/short pieces by an accomplished writer about philosophy. The core essays make it clear that Holt is focusing on the philosophy of science, although the collection is rounded out to include several short reviews, as well as work on the philosophy of language and naming and even the philosophy of BS.

I am never quite sure what to think of writings like this. To start with, the philosophy of science is not science. If you have any doubts, go read one of Einstein’s classic papers and see what it is like. A related point is that these essays are not really serious philosophy either. Philosophy is difficult and frequently very focused. It is also fun to work through - but it does need to be worked through. Go read some of Hilary Putnam’s essays to see.

So what are these essays? They are entertaining and readable. They also help to clarify some ideas that many have heard of but few know in detail. Einstein and quantum physics for sure, including String Theory. The coverage of Godel’s work and even Heisenberg and his uncertainty principle do a great service for general readers and point out numerous works to follow-up with if one is more interested and wishes to read more. I realized a long time ago that labor markets generally work and that big time philosophy was not in my future. But I have also loved reading philosophy and reading about philosophers and their work. For most people, a guide will be needed. Jim Holt does a fine job in this capacity. The essays are also well written and funny.

Philosophers are also academics and some of the essays touch on the dynamics of academic life featuring significant philosophy. I wish Holt had included more of this. The place of women in the occupation has not been without controversy in recent years and I found the ending piece on Kripke especially interesting. There have been other examples especially in the #metoo era, but the piece Holt includes is exceptional in showing how discussions about ideas and their lineage fit into broader academic dynamics. ...more
4

Aug 08, 2018

Calling this one done a bit before the end. Honestly, the latter essays get a bit tedious. There's a lot to love about this book and a few things that kind of grated at my nerves. But overall, some of the better chapters were incredible and really made me think and want to do more research. Despite some potentially serious flaws, I'm giving this one four stars for getting me excited enough to start digging out more of my math books again.
4

Apr 20, 2018

TL;DR

Well-written, thoroughly researched and argued collection of essays wrestling with the difficult topics of mathematics. Recommended for anyone who wants an accessible but challenging look at some of humanity’s deepest problems. This book will make you think.

Disclosure

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux provided an advanced electronic copy in exchange for an honest review. Review cross-posted at my website: PrimmLife

Review


Math and philosophy have always been two sides of the same coin to me. TL;DR

Well-written, thoroughly researched and argued collection of essays wrestling with the difficult topics of mathematics. Recommended for anyone who wants an accessible but challenging look at some of humanity’s deepest problems. This book will make you think.

Disclosure

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux provided an advanced electronic copy in exchange for an honest review. Review cross-posted at my website: PrimmLife

Review


Math and philosophy have always been two sides of the same coin to me. One uses numbers and symbols to build logical arguments, and the other uses words as its tools. While the goals look different, they are actually very similar. Both disciplines seek to explain the beauty of the world they observe around them, and let’s face it, popular culture views the practitioners of both as intelligent ascetic scholars locked in their academic towers living lives wholly of the mind writing and creating papers for other scholars. But there exists certain scholars who wish to bridge the gap between those inside and outside the academic disciplines. When Einstein Walked with Gödel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought by Jim Holt from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux seeks to bring a philosopher’s gaze to the discipline of mathematics, and he largely succeeds. This collection of previously published essays paints a picture of a careful writer wrestling with the mathematician’s place in history. Mr. Holt writes with authority over a wide range of ideas, and he’s found the right balance of challenging and accessibility. When Einstein Walked with Gödel is an excellent addition to my growing list of scientific, mathematical, and philosophical publications; recommended for anyone who wants a survey of the deep ideas in those fields.

Walking with Big Ideas

From infinity to string theory to Mandelbrot to the Riemann Zeta conjecture, Mr. Holt covers the big ideas of mathematics. The essays approach these ideas from a descriptive rather than technical standpoint, and many have a historical and biographical focus that place the mathematical concept in time. To organize the book, essays are grouped into nine sections. Part eight consists of shorter, quicker essays that are unique to this book. Overall, the book covers a lot of ground but doesn’t just skim. Mr. Holt dives into the ideas to produce thorough and enlightening work.

Writing

Receiving an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of When Einstein Walked with Gödel made me ridiculously happy. It hits two of my favorite areas of reading, philosophy and math, but it does so in a pragmatic way. When I pick up scientific/philosophy books, I’m looking for the middle ground of being understandable without being condescending or written with too much hand-holding. Collections like this should be – as it says in the description – accessible. What does accessible mean, though? To me, an accessible scholarly work means that a deep knowledge is not necessary, but the text still requires intellectual interaction. When Einstein Walked with Gödel hits this sweet spot of shining light on tough ideas while not being out of my intellectual capabilities. Mr. Holt accomplishes this through a mix of translating academic ideas from math to practical descriptions, biography, history, and book reviews. It’s clear that Mr. Holt does exhaustive research for his articles and thinks deeply about each topic. With any scientific work, the writing determines the success of the book, and Mr. Holt’s writing is excellent, challenging, and precise. In nearly every essay, Mr. Holt slips easily into a very high diction that had me running to the dictionary; he loved slipping in $100 words or haughty phrases. These moments felt self-congratulatory and knocked me out of the essay but each occurrence was momentary.

The Problem with Collections

As this is a collection of essays and not one whole work, each section provides a new topic, a new argument. Like any collection, some work better than others. The titular essay and "Truth and Reference: A Philosophical Feud" stood out as the two best. The three essays dealing with the mathematical concept of infinity, and, in particular, "The Dangerous Idea of the Infinitesimal," shifted my perspective on the slippery concept in an entertaining way. Mr. Holt’s shorter essays mostly succeeded as more philosophical sketches than essays. Though I think of them more as intellectual snacks when compared to the full meals that are his essays, these short pieces will make you think, or, at least, say “aha.” Overall, When Einstein Walked with Gödel avoids the problem with collection by being filled with many strong pieces. While there were a few weaker essays, only one stood out as a real negative.

Poor Ada Lovelace

In the "The Ada Perplex", Jim Holt questions whether Byron’s daughter deserves the historical position that she occupies, and the well-researched essay casts doubt on her position. But I can’t help notice that the reasons used by Mr. Holt align with historical methods of erasing the contributions of women. Hell, just the cover of Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing lists examples of the arguments that Mr. Holt used to show that Ada may not deserve her vaunted place. Even upon finishing the whole collection, I still don’t know what to make of the Ada Lovelace essay because her contributions are debated but not erased. While this essay attempts to walk the thin line between shedding light on a necessary debate and controversy, I don’t think it succeeds. Her collaboration with Babbage should be scrutinized, but she shouldn’t be discounted as a contributor. Mr. Holt, clearly, researched the hell out of this topic, and if he found obvious evidence for his conclusion, it wasn’t effectively argued in his essay. In the later essay "Truth and Reference: A Philosophical Feud," Mr. Holt succeeds in clearly laying out a controversy without erasing Ruth Barcan Marcus’s contributions, which shows he possesses the capability to write about a difficult topic without erasure. It could be that the second essay succeeds where the first doesn’t because of historical distance between the two events. I just wish he’d handled Ada’s case with a little more care.

Gödel

Gödel and his incompleteness theorem pop up frequently throughout this collection. Whether a byproduct of research, personal bias, or just being right there on his mind, Mr. Holt slips Kurt Gödel into many of the essays. While noticeable, the reference never feels forced. Much the same way a physicist drops Einstein or Feynman into conversation, Mr. Holt name-checks Gödel. All of these references indicate where Mr. Holt places the Austrian in the pantheon of great mathematicians. Simply because of Mr. Holt’s his intellectual rigor and repeated usage of Gödel throughout the collection, he made me curious to learn more about the mathematician and his incompleteness theorem, which is currently beyond my grasp, not that I’ve spent much time on it. However, this is one of the things I enjoyed about the book because it places Mr. Holt in an intellectual lineage. Before this collection, I knew little of Kurt Gödel other than he had an important theorem. Now, I owe Mr. Holt a debt for piquing my curiosity about this strange genius.

Conclusion

When Einstein Walked with Gödel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought exceeded my expectations all around. While some essays missed and one failed, overall the collection presents an enticing, in-depth look at big ideas, maybe some of the biggest ideas in human intellectual history. This accessible yet challenging book educated me on every page without boring me. The very best essays stuck with me long after I finished reading them, and I realized it was because Jim Holt had taken exceedingly complex ideas and distilled them down to their essences. In When Einstein Walked with Gödel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought, Jim Holt translated academic beauty into the layperson’s splendor.

8 out of 10 ...more
3

Nov 20, 2018

I don't normally write a comment regarding the star rating I've attributed to a book, but in this case I feel I should qualify my rating.

For the most part the content of this book is of great quality. Had it not been for the tedious set of shorter essays towards the end and the condescending tone I feel the author occasionally exudes this would've been a 5 star rating.

But its not 4 stars either... and that is due to the utterly unfortunate choice Jim Holt made to focus almost entirely on the I don't normally write a comment regarding the star rating I've attributed to a book, but in this case I feel I should qualify my rating.

For the most part the content of this book is of great quality. Had it not been for the tedious set of shorter essays towards the end and the condescending tone I feel the author occasionally exudes this would've been a 5 star rating.

But its not 4 stars either... and that is due to the utterly unfortunate choice Jim Holt made to focus almost entirely on the "excursions to the edge of thought" that occur in a mans brain. Seriously, how in the fucking world can you overlook the rest of the population and their contribution to the wealth of human knowledge?

Of the core essays from the book (focusing on quite a broad range of subjects from the arts, technology, philosophy and science) just a single one has at its core a woman. And that essay is basically a tear down of Ada Lovelace and her contribution to computing. I'm not debating the veracity of the arguments Holt presents (although, I did detect a bit more of a bite in his writing here compared to elsewhere), I just think its a shame that rather than try to redress the balance a bit, he instead picks just a single female and seeks (solely) to undermine her achievements.

Interestingly, I didn't think I'd heard of Jim Holt prior to this book. But, while researching him, I found I had in fact come across him before: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-st...

Quite a nasty pattern, eh? ...more
2

Dec 17, 2018

Most of this is Holt not Einstein or Godel

Only the introduction describes how the two great men walked together at Princeton. The rest of the chapters are the author's simplified explanations of his understanding of the latest thinking in relativity and mathematics. He asserts Godel said time does not exist but doesn't explain the notion well. Time need not be a factor in Einstein's equations. But that doesn't mean it isn't a consequence of being in a particular frame of reference. Otherwise Most of this is Holt not Einstein or Godel

Only the introduction describes how the two great men walked together at Princeton. The rest of the chapters are the author's simplified explanations of his understanding of the latest thinking in relativity and mathematics. He asserts Godel said time does not exist but doesn't explain the notion well. Time need not be a factor in Einstein's equations. But that doesn't mean it isn't a consequence of being in a particular frame of reference. Otherwise rocket scientists wouldn't be able to reach their targets! ...more
2

Nov 30, 2019

I wrote a review of this book. Now it’s missing. Holt would turn that fact into a chapter on any number of topics.
Not quite popsci, not quite personal philosophical explorations, not deep enough for research, too deep for most readers’ pleasure reading. Holt slides over some material and delves into others. Not sure what his selection algorithm is. Am sure he’d write a chapter about it. Or use it as a leaping place to some other topic.
3

Jul 20, 2018

A collection of essays on interesting topics that unfortunately is less than the sum of its parts. Holt is an engaging writer with a rock-solid knowledge of mathematical and philosophical topics, and he wrote one of the best books I've read in a long time ("Why Does the World Exist?"), but this one falls far short of that lofty exemplar even though it covers many of the same topics.

The main problem is that this collects essays that appeared in other publications over a period of many, many A collection of essays on interesting topics that unfortunately is less than the sum of its parts. Holt is an engaging writer with a rock-solid knowledge of mathematical and philosophical topics, and he wrote one of the best books I've read in a long time ("Why Does the World Exist?"), but this one falls far short of that lofty exemplar even though it covers many of the same topics.

The main problem is that this collects essays that appeared in other publications over a period of many, many years (at least one clearly dates back to the mid-90's, and receives an outpouring of footnotes in a hasty attempt to bring it up to date). Further, those essays often overlap in topic. So, while they may stand well alone, in succession they become repetitive, belabored, and also sometimes inconsistent. A thinker praised in one essay may turn up as the target of a hit piece later in the volume. The reader is often introduced to a physicist or mathematician and then receives another introduction afresh later in the book, which wastes pages and feels a bit absent-minded at best. Further, a lot of these lack the depth of Holt's book-length excursions on the questions of existential import. That magazine quality occasionally reveals something of the threadbare in Holt's argumentation: in his haste to find an "angle", there are a lot more straw men set up, pompous declarations on the soundness of arguments without the legwork to show it, and general pettiness on display.

I'd still rather read Holt than the vast majority of authors out there, but I was disappointed in this. It felt more like a cash-in due to the popularity of his earlier book rather than something that urgently needed to be published. There were definitely parts I liked though. I enjoyed his essay about Dawkins, for instance. Although I know Holt to be an agnostic with some antipathy towards organized religion, I thought he did a good job of showing the weaknesses in Dawkins' case against theism (even though I'm guessing Holt agrees with Dawkins more than he differs). The best pieces are often the ones with an inside baseball exploration of professional conflicts that most of us would never hear about, but which deal with topics of supreme interest to all of us (e.g., the ultimate fate of the universe, string theory and/or the theory of everything, the nature of truth, etc.). ...more
4

Sep 11, 2018


I read a lot of audiobooks about science. I don't always understand everything I hear, but the format does make that easier for me. Holt's collection of essays on science and (to a lesser degree) philosophy range from the easily comprehensible to the sort of things that would make my eyes glaze over if I was reading hard copy, but for the most part he does a great job of making a lot of complex scientific ideas much clearer and more accessible.

His discussions of physics and mathematics, which
I read a lot of audiobooks about science. I don't always understand everything I hear, but the format does make that easier for me. Holt's collection of essays on science and (to a lesser degree) philosophy range from the easily comprehensible to the sort of things that would make my eyes glaze over if I was reading hard copy, but for the most part he does a great job of making a lot of complex scientific ideas much clearer and more accessible.

His discussions of physics and mathematics, which make up the bulk of the book, made a good deal of sense to me as I listened. Not that I could reproduce the formulae or equations involved. But Holt manages to give a layperson the ability to grasp some difficult concepts with the clarity of his prose.

And then there's the philosophy part which sometimes utterly eludes me because so much of it is counter-intuitive.  Still, it's almost as interesting to hear about the battles over who took credit for what, even if I don't begin to understand the What part, as it is to get the lowdown on Einstein's problems with "spooky action at a distance" which name could have been applied to gravity before science became aware of how forces work, or Gödel's paranoia that people were trying to poison him, leading him to effectively starve himself to death. Certainly some of the most interesting parts were Holt's discussion of the life and work of Alan Turing, who these days seems to be more famous as a gay martyr than as a brilliant mathematician who, in breaking the Enigma code, helped win WWII.

It's one of those books that veers from the chatty and informative to the murkily complex. Some of it is a joy to read, some went the proverbial route of in one ear and out the other. Still, I feel as if I got a great deal of both pleasure and information out of it, and I think that's all I can reasonably expect. ...more
5

Jul 28, 2018

We are in 2018, Jim collected a bunch of essays on uncomfortable topics here called the edge of thought. Check out this unusual question. What is likely to happen with laughter and numbers at the year one million? Thrilling. And it gets better. Remember that the intercourse between mathematics and physics has been pushing human intelligence to its limits. The essays on mathematics invite you to: digest infinities with different sizes, touch infinite small numbers and jump in places with many We are in 2018, Jim collected a bunch of essays on uncomfortable topics here called the edge of thought. Check out this unusual question. What is likely to happen with laughter and numbers at the year one million? Thrilling. And it gets better. Remember that the intercourse between mathematics and physics has been pushing human intelligence to its limits. The essays on mathematics invite you to: digest infinities with different sizes, touch infinite small numbers and jump in places with many dimensions. In sequence, come computers creating very long proofs together with the decision problem which is equivalent to the halting problem. Followed by physics searching for a theory of everything that may help us to explore the energy of our sun so civilization can spread over the galaxy. And much more. But no bullshit. Although there is an essay on BS. What?! Surely these edgy topics will demand some brainpower. Pure delight. ...more
3

Nov 14, 2018

This book was a heavy read. Each chapter covers a different topic, so I felt like taking a break after each topic to reflect.
Science and physics is a male dominated space, this book reinforces that, not in a positive way.
4

Oct 04, 2018

Very good collection of essays/articles about a wide range of topics in science, mathematics, philosophy and other disciplines. Was most enlightened by the articles on mathematicians (who apparently tend toward the slightly crazy). Thought the collection lagged a bit in the last third, but did enjoy the chapter on the philosophical feud related to naming and reference. Topics and people discussed definitely added to my reading list.
4

Aug 22, 2019

I’m not going to sit here and pretend I understood every line of every essay in Jim Holt’s gripping collection entitled When Einstein Walked with Godel. I will say I wanted to, and I will say I tried. But alas, I failed. Now I’m thinking perhaps I should be glad I did fail.

Normally rationalizing away my failures has one cause - insecurity. However in this case I have two reasons to rationalize my failure. The first reason comes from Holt himself. He explicitly states a couple of times and then I’m not going to sit here and pretend I understood every line of every essay in Jim Holt’s gripping collection entitled When Einstein Walked with Godel. I will say I wanted to, and I will say I tried. But alas, I failed. Now I’m thinking perhaps I should be glad I did fail.

Normally rationalizing away my failures has one cause - insecurity. However in this case I have two reasons to rationalize my failure. The first reason comes from Holt himself. He explicitly states a couple of times and then later more coyly alludes to his observation that folks who take thinking to “the edge of thought” don’t seem to fare that well. He cites cases of paranoia, isolation, suicide, and madness among many who thought to the edge. OK, you don’t have to tell me twice (well, yes you do); I don't understand what I read but failing to do so is actually good for my health - got it.

Many of the essays present information in such a way that I ended up doubting I knew anything to begin with. Pythagoras didn’t come up with the Pythagorean Theorem? Charity is bad? Rocks have consciousness? Did I already go over the edge of thought? That leads me to the second way to rationalize away my relative stupidity: Holt's final essay in this collection deals with bullsh1t. I can’t help thinking now that maybe, just maybe, Holt was bullsh1tting me all along!

I don't understand it, it is detrimental to my health, and it's all bullsh1t. Sounds like 4 stars to me! ...more
4

Sep 19, 2018

A collection of book reviews and essays, mostly from NYRB I think - in structure these are very similar to Freeman Dyson's collections of essays, i.e., there's a book to be reviewed, but the book's themes are used as a starting point for an essay about the themes, not a evaluation of the book itself.

The themes of the essays sometimes overlap, but Holt is much more interested in the philosophy of mathematics, i.e., what's more fun to think about, the infinity of numbers between 1 and 2, or the A collection of book reviews and essays, mostly from NYRB I think - in structure these are very similar to Freeman Dyson's collections of essays, i.e., there's a book to be reviewed, but the book's themes are used as a starting point for an essay about the themes, not a evaluation of the book itself.

The themes of the essays sometimes overlap, but Holt is much more interested in the philosophy of mathematics, i.e., what's more fun to think about, the infinity of numbers between 1 and 2, or the infinity of large numbers? There's a history of the 'solve' of the four-colour-theorem and the associated problems (it was essentially brute forced with computers, which angered many, which is what the essay is about!)

There's a needlessly mean essay about Ada Lovelace in there (the gist: she was a kind of Paris Hilton who couldn't even do basic maths, it was all Babbage), but the rest is gold.

Favorite quote, from a review of David Foster Wallace's history of infinity:


And if he was sometimes in over his head, it is because he chose to wade through the deepest waters.


Other quotes:


De Prony found his inspiration in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations—specifically, in Smith’s account of the division of labor in a pin factory. Hiring a hundred or so Parisian hairdressers who had been thrown out of work when their clients lost their pompadoured heads to guillotines during the Reign of Terror, de Prony set up a kind of arithmetic assembly line that would, as he put it, “manufacture logarithms as one manufactures pins.” The individual hairdressers had no special mathematical abilities: all they could do was add, subtract, and cut hair. The intelligence was in their organization.


This surprised me a lot; there has been a lot of hype about Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem, in which there's a very similar machine using soldiers as 'pins'. Amazing that this existed in reality!

On the eternity of the universe:

Why should we want the universe to last forever, anyway? Look—either the universe has a purpose or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then it is absurd. If it does have a purpose, then there are two possibilities: either this purpose is eventually achieved, or it is never achieved. If it is never achieved, then the universe is futile. But if it is eventually achieved, then any further existence of the universe is pointless. So, no matter how you slice it, an eternal universe is either (a) absurd, (b) futile, or (c) eventually pointless.


Channeling Discworld's Death in Hogfather:


As long as there are no decisive arguments for or against the existence of God, a certain number of smart people will go on believing in him, just as smart people reflexively believe in other things for which they have no knockdown philosophical arguments, like free will, or objective values, or the existence of other minds.


If all of these soundbites sound boring to you, steer clear, it's mostly like that! ...more
4

Apr 11, 2019

A book of essays about a combination of math theory, physics, and philosophy, the author does well tying together a disparate set of thoughts. If you enjoy all three topics, I highly recommend this book. If you enjoy or are interested in one or two of the topics, you will probably enjoy reading those essays and skipping essays that interest you less. This lover of physics and philosophy (but not math theory) wishes he had skipped some of the essays on math theory (but not all; the essay on A book of essays about a combination of math theory, physics, and philosophy, the author does well tying together a disparate set of thoughts. If you enjoy all three topics, I highly recommend this book. If you enjoy or are interested in one or two of the topics, you will probably enjoy reading those essays and skipping essays that interest you less. This lover of physics and philosophy (but not math theory) wishes he had skipped some of the essays on math theory (but not all; the essay on infinity kept me very engaged). Even if you don't agree with the author's conclusions, the writing is clear and thought provoking, and sometimes even a bit playful (e.g., comparing Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion to a Michael Moore movie with "good, hard-hitting stuff . . . but the tone is smug and the logic occasionally sloppy"). Beyond that, the author manages to discuss some highly complex subjects without devolving into jargon or unreadability. Certainly worth a read for the topic areas that interest you. ...more
3

Nov 16, 2018

P.J. O’Rourke once said, "Always read stuff that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it." This is one of those books! But as heavy as the subject matter is, Holt writes in a manner that makes the topics interesting. That, and the fact that the topics are covered independently in short chapters, made it easy to pause and reflect before moving on.
4

Oct 27, 2019

Thoughtful and provocative essays about math and science and philosophy- and also very much about mathematicians and scientists and philosophers. A bit of redundancy because the essays were written for a variety of publications and a few bits were recycled. Very well written.
3

Apr 18, 2019

Regularly thought-provoking and galvanizing, but hobbled by all the filler.
4

Sep 04, 2018

Many engaging ideas packaged in bite-sized and often amusing essays made for a good read.
4

Jun 17, 2019

Really fun if you like this sort of thing, and fortunately, I do.

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