Audiobook Review: When Einstein Walked with Gödel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought

My library copy.

If I had a 1905 like Albert Einstein, I’d probably coast on that year for the rest of my life. Fortunately for us, Einstein didn’t. And while I’m thinking about it, to echo similar sentiments, something that makes me despair is to wonder how many potential Einsteins have been lost to disease, famine, wars, poverty, and the like that we will never know about? And even when you think about Einstein, Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, and others who made great contributions to science, and therefore, humanity, they were this close to being devoured by such things, or not being in the “right place at the right time,” as it were. Imagine what Turing could have done if he lived to a riper, older age?

In 1905, Einstein proffered his E = mc2 equation for the theory of special relativity, where energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. The theory postulates that energy and mass (matter) are interchangeable forms of the same thing. That world famous equation aside, he also theorized about atoms, and rewrote the laws of physics concerning the laws on absolute light and speed by making time and distance relative. He was only 26 by at that point, too. And get this, his paper on relativity was rejected when he submitted it as a dissertation. That’s nice fodder for those who feel dejected when receiving a rejection!

I learned this and more from American philosopher and essayist Jim Holt’s 2018 audiobook, When Einstein Walked with Gödel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought, which is a collection of Holt’s 25 essays on science, philosophy, the nature of time, eugenics, quantum physics, string theory, the end of the universe, mathematics, and bullshit and the nature of truth. All of which I found interesting and worthy of more investigation. I particularly liked the parsing on the latter between truth, lies, and bullshit (in short, the truth-teller and liar are both concerned with truth, but the bullshitter cares not).

Holt’s three considerations for putting together this collection inspired by the walks between Einstein and Gödel late in the former’s life, where Gödel wasn’t shy about challenging Einstein’s genius intellect, included: to be interesting and understandable (i.e., to make the book accessible to the general public), to examine the human factor (so many of the giants of mathematics, science and philosophy do indeed have tragic ends), and to probe the philosophical in how it intertwines with everything.

Gödel hits all three of these quite well, as his story is accessible inasmuch as somebody who walked with Einstein can be accessible, Holt demonstrates the human factor with how unfailingly paranoid Gödel was in his life, and the philosophical, because Gödel’s contributions include ruminations on time itself. Gödel thought time doesn’t exist, which would indicate that time travel itself isn’t possible, because if the past can be revisited, then it can’t be constituted as the “past.”

Holt’s entire meditation on time, spinning out of Gödel’s ruminations, was as trippy as I imagine it would be for human consciousness to be poured into a black hole, where Holt said “black holes are the gateway to the end time, to ‘no when.'”

I’m not sure Holt always achieves his accessibility aim, but I can’t deny how interesting it is. I say the former because a fair amount, especially the mathematics portions of the audiobook, went over my head. But what connected with me, oddly, was the Copernican Principle. Richard Gott used the principle in the early 1990s to extrapolate how long something will be around. The conceptualization and resulting formula is based on the idea that we, as humans, do not possibly occupy a unique moment in time (although conversely, Holt argued that it is feasible that we are the first 0.000001 percent of humans to exist, which does make us unique, especially if an asteroid were to wipe us out tomorrow), and as such, anything we are observing or experiencing is probably in its middle rather than beginning or end. Using that method, Holt explained that the expected time range for humans is between 5,130 years and 7.8 million years, with a 95 percent confidence interval.

From that formulation, interestingly, Holt believes that mathematics, particularly our fascination and fixation on prime numbers, will seem rudimentary by our descendants within the next million years. Not even just rudimentary, but that those humans will think of it as “man-made” rather than the current conception of math existing as something that would objectively exist even if we, as humans, weren’t observing it. But what is sure to survive a million years from now, if our human descendants are still around? Laughter, Holt estimates. I find that beautiful.

Another way Holt makes the book interesting beyond deep philosophical ruminations or mathematical equations (that as I mentioned, sometimes went over my head) is how many jokes he includes in his essays, some obvious and some so dry, you might miss it at first listen (or read). I think that’s how he tries to make some of these esoteric discussions more grounded by making analogies to understandable, and even culturally-significant, terms. He references Woody Allen a lot for example, so I’m assuming he’s a Woody Allen fan. In fact, he references Woody Allen considerably more than he did Stephen Hawking, which surprised me! Especially because he spends considerable time on string theory and other dimensions.

On mathematics, I also found it interesting that like with any field, there are two considerations that come into play: a.) aesthetics and b.) gatekeeping of the aesthetic. Many of the mathematicians and logicians Holt references possess a deeply abiding love of mathematics’ beauty, where, they would probably love mathematics beyond any practical utility. The love is in the seeming fact of mathematics. But many of them were also interested in gatekeeping it, from say, the advent of the computer. Because the computer would take away the aesthetic beauty from the mathematicians by having a computer do the work. And how can you verify the computer, anyway? All the mathematicians couldn’t verify such work, or so the thinking went.

Perhaps a third consideration is idolizing the single-man-as-genius, which is both a form of aesthetics and gatekeeping that can turn pernicious, as in the example Holt lays out of American philosopher Saul Kripke, who perhaps lifted some of his famous philosophical musings from Ruth Barcan Marcus years earlier. It’s an interesting conundrum of sorts anyhow: being the originator of a thought, an idea, a concept, or a theory, and crediting those thoughts, ideas, concepts, theories, and in the naming of them, which Holt also spent time on.

Amusingly, in a related gatekeeping moment, one professor of English literature even complained about his students “skimming, scanning, and scrolling” in … 1994, and how because of the computer, those students will never be able to “dive into a book” like he can. But of course, that is silly, just as I’m sure the oratory generation complained about written text, and then that generation complained about the printing press, and so on and so forth.

Holt also refutes, in part, an Atlantic technology writer, I believe, who wrote a book … against technology in the early 2000s. Is it just me or do a lot of tech journalists seems to hate technology?! Nonetheless, the writer was arguing that technology, specifically the computer, was changing brains, but my rejoinder to that would be, even if you can show that the computer changes brains (which seems likely), it doesn’t then follow that the brain has been changed for the worse. And I think Holt makes a compelling case that the tech writer was overstating his case with scant evidence.

But the tech writer isn’t the only one who receives Holt’s condemnation. He also goes after Richard Dawkins’ 2006 book, The God Delusion, for using flimsy logic, and setting up theological strawman to attack. In other words, it’s easy to go after the fringes of theology, but much harder to deal with the good faith (ha) theologians presenting stronger arguments. He also rightly assesses Dawkins as smug and smug in his arguments.

If you also like to think about the end of the universe, whether a rock has consciousness, and other such theoretical discussions, then I think you’d enjoy Holt’s book in print or audiobook form. To the latter, I thought David Stifel did an incredible job reading the book, given how esoteric it can get. He’s a better man than I am at pronouncing myriad things.

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