Let’s be clear: Jim Holt is not afraid of tackling the big questions. His 2012 book, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, made that fact certain. His latest book, When Einstein Walked with Gödel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought, is a collection of essays previously published in several distinguished periodicals, including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and the London Review of Books. A noted American philosopher and TED talk speaker, Holt is at home whether he is discussing the history of science, the state of play in modern philosophy or the impact of quantum mechanics.
Consequently, it is no surprise that the essays in this book explore a complex array of subjects: string theory, the nature of the infinite and the infinitesimal and the impact of computers upon human intelligence, to name a few. But there are lighter moments as well, such as Holt’s essay on the overabundance of overconfidence, or the lowdown on Ava Lovelace’s self-proclaimed mathematical genius (Holt’s verdict on whether Lord Byron’s daughter was a mathematical prodigy: not so much). There are many poignant moments, too, and several of his biographical essays serve as cautionary tales—apparently, mathematical obsession can be dangerous to sanity and health.
This book does not dawdle. Holt is a complex and rigorous writer examining complex and rigorous subjects. Readers whose mathematical and analytical logic skills are a tad rusty might need to google Gödel’s incompleteness theorem or the Riemann zeta conjecture. Trust me, it’s worth the effort. As his subtitle suggests, Holt is pushing us to explore the ideas that have revolutionized how we see the world, the universe and truth itself. They are messy, complicated affairs, but Holt’s intellectual clarity and lucid writing illuminate them. These concepts are mind-boggling, literally. Like the fractals Holt writes about in “Geometrical Creatures,” these ideas are as wild and jagged as a rocky coastline, but therein lies their beauty—and their fun.