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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.
Inspired by the unlikely friendship of gregarious physicist Albert Einstein (1879 1955) and gloomy logician Kurt G del (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 \nscience 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 G del's incompleteness theorems subverted notions about the abstract world of mathematics, and both men certainly lived dramatic lives particularly G del, 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.