“Munching on a vile ‘veggie’ sandwich that I had picked up at the convenience store across the parking lot, I pondered proton decay.” Thus Jim Holt introduces us to his views about eternity, immortality, and the origins of the universe in one of the 39 short essays that make up this new book — a smart, erudite, and witty guided tour of some of the most colorful episodes and characters in the history of science and mathematics.
“When Einstein Walked with Gödel” is not intended as serious or original scholarship. Instead, it seeks to place lofty figures like its title characters in a context that ordinary readers can grasp. Like that veggie sandwich opening, chapters often start with salient or graphic illustrations to lure the reader into dauntingly complex material. The chapter on Alan Turing opens with the moment when he “was found dead by his housekeeper”; the one on how the universe will end starts with “one of my favorite moments in Woody Allen’s film ‘Annie Hall.’”
Chapter endings are similarly evocative. “Time — The Grand Illusion?” ends with the physicist John Archibald Wheeler’s discovery of a phrase found “among graffiti in the men’s room at the Old Pecan Street Café in Austin, Texas.” “One of the great physicists of the 20th century,” writes Holt, “[Wheeler] took to quoting this in a scientific paper: ‘Time is nature’s way to keep everything from happening all at once.’”
Holt’s book gives the impression that no one with a 9-to-5 job or a conventional life produced fascinating scientific work. His heroes are often comic or tragic, immersed in deep thinking while having fun or going crazy. Noting the common use of syllogisms and tautologies in jokes and in math, Holt concludes, “I think humor and mathematics will have changed places by the Year Million” — a term that reappears in the book as a label for Holt’s vision of a distant future where universal truths will finally appear with greater clarity.
Holt’s all-too-human characters are dwarfed by the scales of time that interest him, of millions of years and light-years. “Nearly every human who will ever exist will live in the distant future,” he reminds us. In this cosmic drama, we’d better fasten our seatbelts. Since scientists “cannot rule out” the possibility that space is currently unstable, at any moment, space “could spontaneously slip to a lower energy level… annihilating in a stroke everything before it: entire star systems, galaxies, galactic clusters, and eventually the cosmos itself.”
A veteran science writer best known for the much-praised 2013 best seller “Why Does the World Exist?,” Holt is fascinated by questions and paradoxes that need not concern ordinary citizens. “Why does a mirror reverse right/left but not up/down?” he asks in the chapter “The Looking-Glass War.” The “subtle disanalogy between left/right and up/down” cannot be dismissed as a problem for privileged physicists; it may hold the key to deep truths about the universe deservedly analyzed in the pages of The Journal of Philosophy and The Philosophical Review, which Holt covers in some detail. For the benefit of readers who may be “fatigued by the debate,” he adds that they can actually buy a mirror that does not reverse right and left: “Although the little shop I discovered on the Lower East Side is long gone, you can still get a True Mirror over the internet.”
Holt’s intellectual fascinations center on “wars” and “feuds” beyond mirrors, but far beyond actual battlefields too. “The String Theory Wars: Is Beauty Truth?” deals with the work of Peter Woit and Lee Smolin against string theory, and “Truth and Reference: A Philosophical Feud” centers on the work and legacy of Saul Kripke. Intelligence and genius are explored mostly at the level of the individual, whereas institutional, social, and political elements appear throughout the book mostly as adornment or context. Celebratory and hagiographic remarks are part of a project of ranking and rating these brilliant men and women (but mostly men): “Among 20th-century geniuses, von Neumann ranks very close to Einstein,” while Ada Lovelace is “dismissed from contention” for the title of “first computer programmer” and recategorized as part of the “froufrou antecedents of the computer era.”
Some of the chapters are new riffs on old book reviews in publications like The New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, and The New York Times Book Review. “Infinite Visions: Georg Cantor v. David Foster Wallace” focuses mostly on Holt’s reading of Wallace’s book “Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞”; “Smarter, Happier, More Productive,” reviews Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”; and “Dawkins and the Deity” centers on Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion.” Holt draws on his conversations with scientists, which are recalled in vivid detail and often include descriptions of their physical appearance and accents. Remembering the physicist Frank Tipler’s argument with Freeman Dyson about intelligent life, Holt quotes Tipler as shouting: “Ah went up to Princeton last November and ah tode him the argument! Ah tode him!”
A section titled “Quick Studies: A Selection of Shorter Essays” (each a few pages long) reaches into even more eclectic territory, including panpsychism and the possibility that a rock might have a mind; a French court case about a child who was born handicapped because of German measles exposure during his mother’s pregnancy; the statistical distribution of overconfidence in the general population; and ambiguities and misuses of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. In a chapter on the law of eponymy (the principle that no important discovery is named after its actual discoverer), Holt punctures the common misconception that the word “crap” derives from Thomas Crapper, the inventor of the flush toilet; in fact, he writes, “this etymology is spurious: The word ‘crap’ in its excremental sense entered Middle English from Old French.” He goes on: “I could give more examples, but lunchtime approaches, and I am looking forward to eating something that I feel quite certain was not invented by the fourth Earl of Sandwich.”
The final chapter, tellingly titled “Say Anything,” is based on an essay Holt published in The New Yorker. Focusing mainly on two books — Laura Penny’s “Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit” and Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” — Holt takes aim at “the varieties of ‘theory’ that have made their way from the Left Bank of Paris into American English departments,” and calls bullshit on no less a philosophical icon than Martin Heidegger for writing, “being can indeed be without beings” in the fourth edition of “What Is Metaphysics?” before changing it to “being never is without beings” in the fifth edition. It’s a fitting way to close this bold and uncensored intellectual romp by an author who clearly feels no need to mince his words.
Jimena Canales is an award-winning author and faculty member of the Graduate College at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her books include “A Tenth of a Second” and “The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time.”