When Einstein Walked with Godel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought by Jim Holt
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 384 pp.
When Albert Einstein relocated to Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study after fleeing Europe, he used to take regular walks with fellow German émigré Kurt Godel, considered the greatest logician since Aristotle. The outgoing, popular Einstein and the dark, paranoid Godel were an odd pair, but a devoted one. Einstein told people that he went into the office “just to have the privilege of walking home with Kurt Godel.”
Jim Holt’s engaging glimpse of one of the great perambulatory pairings in history is the opening essay in his deeply absorbing new collection of writings on philosophy, physics, mathematics, and the cosmos. Holt had an unexpected bestseller a few years ago with his book Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story, which drew on the ideas of a large and eclectic array of thinkers – from Martin Heidegger to John Updike – to engage the question in the title. When Einstein Walked with Godel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought takes a similarly wide-ranging approach.
Holt’s discussion of the nature of time incorporates the views of Isaac Newton and Fran Lebowitz. His essay on Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics, spans from how the Nazis turned Galton’s theories into the evil “science” of Rassenhygiene, or “race hygiene,” to an entertaining tale of Galton’s encounter, while traveling through Africa, with King Nangoro, “a tribal leader locally reputed to be the fattest man in the world.”
Holt writes about life’s greatest mysteries with both depth and humor. In an essay on the nature of the universe, he explores some heavy theories about how it may all end. Then, in explaining the reason the cosmos is a subject worth pondering, he invokes Monty Python: “‘cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.”