In his 2012 book, “Why Does the World Exist?,” Jim Holt invited a noisy swarm of physicists, theologians and novelists to stare into the abyss with him. He wanted their take on the question that had nagged at him since high school and shaken his faith, the question William James once called the darkest in all of philosophy: Why should there be something rather than nothing?
That book is a bouquet of defiantly loose strands. “There is nothing I dislike more than premature intellectual closure,” Holt writes in it. But his conversations with his interlocutors — searching, spiraling, well lubricated with wine — answer a separate question very decisively. Given that there is something rather than nothing, well, what next? What do we do while we’re here?
Holt’s example is plain: Think well, eat well and seek out those who will nourish and challenge you. It’s this conviviality, and a crispness of style, that distinguish him as a popularizer of some very redoubtable mathematics and science. “My ideal is the cocktail-party chat,” he writes in the preface to his new essay collection, “When Einstein Walked with Gödel,” “getting across a profound idea in a brisk and amusing way to an interested friend by stripping it down to its essence (perhaps with a few swift pencil strokes on a napkin). The goal is to enlighten the newcomer while providing a novel twist that will please the expert. And never to bore.”
In these pieces, plucked from the last 20 years, Holt takes on infinity and the infinitesimal, the illusion of time, the birth of eugenics, the so-called new atheism, smartphones and distraction. It is an elegant history of recent ideas. There are a few historical correctives — he dismantles the notion that Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, was the first computer programmer. But he generally prefers to perch in the middle of a muddle — say, the string theory wars — and hear evidence from both sides without rushing to adjudication.
The essays orbit around three chief concerns: How do we conceive of the world (metaphysics), how do we know what we know (epistemology) and how do we conduct ourselves (ethics).
But I prefer another organizing principle, my own, based not on the theories but the thinkers: let us name these three types “incorrigible eccentrics,” “delusional hermits” and “oh, no.” As Holt writes, “All these ideas come with flesh-and-blood progenitors who led highly dramatic lives. Often these lives contain an element of absurdity.”
This is putting it very mildly. Almost every essay features awe-inspiring intellectual achievement and incomprehensible human suffering or folly. These facts do not seem unrelated. The men (with the exception of Lovelace, Holt only writes about men) died in asylums. They ended their lives in duels and suicide. They died of voluntary starvation.
In this #MeToo moment, when there is renewed interest in (read: confusion about) how to separate the life from the work, there is a welcome matter-of-factness in Holt’s approach, a refreshing acknowledgment of how the two seep into each other, an awareness for our propensity for self-deception.
Holt is an amphibious kind of writer, so capably slipping from theology to cosmology to poetry, you’re reminded that specialization is a modern invention. The word “scientist” was only coined in 1833, by the philosopher William Whewell, who sought to professionalize science and separate it from philosophy. It was a brilliantly successful move. “Science grew to a dominant position in public life, and philosophy shrank,” Freeman Dyson has written. “Philosophy shrank even further when it became detached from religion and from literature.”
Part of what makes Holt so exciting is his ability to gather these disciplines under his shingle, to make their knottiest questions not only intelligible but enticing, without sacrificing rigor. “People who are otherwise cultivated will proudly confess their philistinism when it comes to mathematics,” Holt writes. “The problem is that they have never been introduced to its masterpieces.” Proofs can resemble “narratives, with plots and subplots, twists and resolutions. It is this kind of mathematics that most people never see. True, it can be daunting. But great works of art, even when difficult, often allow the untutored a glimpse into their beauty. You don’t have to know the theory of counterpoint to be moved by a Bach fugue.”
Thomas Jefferson, Holt reminds us, said that thinking about mathematics helped “beguile the wearisomeness of declining life.” Bertrand Russell claimed that it was the only thing that kept him from suicide.
The title essay of this collection is a diffuse piece about the radical shifts in our notions of time, told through the friendship between Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel. Having toppled the foundations of the physical world and mathematics, respectively, they found themselves in Princeton in the 1930s. They could not have been more different, Holt points out — Gödel so fastidious in his white linen suit, Einstein with his “pillow-combed hair” and enormous trousers (Holt is wonderful on the self-presentation of scientists). But they were becoming museum pieces of a sort, and found harbor in each other, taking daily walks to campus. Holt, in a neat encapsulation of his project, elbows his way in and speculates on what they might have discussed. Even if the paces of a few decades (and too many I.Q. points to count) separate us from these giants, we’re lucky to have Jim Holt help us eavesdrop.
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