A WORLD WITHOUT TIME

THE FORGOTTEN LEGACY OF GÖDEL AND EINSTEIN

Intellectually provocative, of more interest to scholars than the general public, but accessible to the motivated sub-genius.

An account of the spacey philosophical/mathematical territory charted by 20th-century European über-minds, from the perspective of Austrian-born Kurt Gödel, supported by Albert Einstein.

Yourgrau (Philosophy/Brandeis) devotes the bulk of his text to the birth and academic life of “the Gödel Universe” (the forgotten legacy to which the subtitle refers), a radical cosmological view made plausible by Einstein’s theories. In the magical, rotating Gödel Universe, time is merely another sort of space, and therefore an actual rocket ship could, if it goes fast enough, travel back in time. It’s an unpopular theory, and the author gives ample attention to its detractors while remaining an unabashed cheerleader for Gödel. (Stephen Hawking is one of the more prominent members of the opposition, which Yourgrau blithely attributes to the theory’s shocking implications.) When he writes of real space and real time, the author does a superb job of portraying the thinkers from a human perspective, describing Gödel as “gaunt, harrowed, and haunted, peering through thick glasses like an owl from another dimension.” He depicts Kurt and Albert as complementary entities, despite their contradictory characters. Both German speakers made multiple visits to sanitoria over their lifetimes, but Gödel was a theist, baptized Lutheran, whereas Einstein was a culturally Jewish, “deeply religious unbeliever.” Einstein was a fan of Beethoven and Mozart, Gödel of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Unlike James Gleick’s Chaos (1987) or Simon Singh’s Fermat's Enigma (1997), which both effectively make high-level intellectual concepts understandable to the average reader, Yourgrau’s narrative displays less concern for pandering to nonacademic stragglers. At times it reads like the account of a scholarly hockey game; after an idea has passed from Leibniz to Wittgenstein to Goldfarb to Frege to Husserl to Capek and back, it’s easy to lose track of the goal. And that’s not the only reason many readers, even science buffs, will be left in the space dust.

Intellectually provocative, of more interest to scholars than the general public, but accessible to the motivated sub-genius.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-465-09293-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Basic Books

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2004

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A quirky wonder of a book.

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both...

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Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.

These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-18441-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 7, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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