A collection of incisive essays that make learning about science fun.
Holt (Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, 2012, etc.), who writes about philosophy, science, and math for the New York Times, gathers two decades of previously published essays that represent the “most thrilling (and humbling) intellectual achievements I’ve encountered in my life.” His goal is to “enlighten” newcomers and experts alike, and he succeeds. The essays are mostly personality-driven, filled with brilliant, strange, and eccentric men and women in the sciences. Holt is an excellent synthesizer of data. In “Smarter, Happier, More Productive,” he ranges among Woody Allen, Sven Birkerts, Nicholas Carr, and Henri Poincaré (not just a genius mathematician, but also a “lovely prose stylist”) to delve into whether the internet “may be an enemy of creativity.” As the author writes, “I’ve avoided the snares of the digital age. And I still can’t get anything done.” In “How Will the Universe End?” Holt pits a group of cosmologists, including Freeman Dyson and Michio Kaku, up against each other in a battle of end-day theories. Holt’s essay on Alan Turing is particularly affecting. The man who solved the “most important logic problem of his time,” the Nazi’s Enigma code, was arrested for homosexuality, suffered chemical castration, and committed suicide at the age of 41. Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, died at 36; the author describes her as the “cult goddess of cyber feminism” for her groundbreaking work in computer programming. A cluster of eclectic “Quick Studies” briefly touch on such things as the mind of a rock and the case of the puzzling Monty Hall problem. In “Doom Soon,” Holt notes, “the North Star could go supernova at any moment. In fact, the dread event might already have happened.”
Prepare to be wined, dined, and entertained by quantum mechanics, group theory, topology, the infinitesimal, the infinitely small, and the string theory generation, among other topics.