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Review - Conversations with a Mathematician - Gregory Chaitin


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There is something fascinating about getting an insight into the sort of thinking that few of us are capable of. It seems likely that this is the reason that Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time was so popular - for the peek into the brain of a genius. Chaitin is unusual amongst top ranking mathematicians in that he delights in opening up how the mathematical mind works - his non-technical writing oozes with enthusiasm for his subject, and it's infectious.

This collection of interviews and lectures by Chaitin gives an opportunity to really get under a mathematician's skin. It is inevitably pretty repetitious, as common themes link many of the items in the collection. Chaitin says this is a good thing, and certainly it's good to be able to explore what can be quite challenging concepts from different directions, though sometimes the literal transcriptions aren't the best way to get the material across. (Compare, for example, some of Feynman's lectures, which have been edited to take out the natural hiccups.)

The book only gets three stars if it is taken in isolation. It's a trifle slim, and bitty because of its structure. But, taken the right way it is excellent. Far and above the best way to come to it is to first read Chaitin's free downloadable book MetaMath (see our Chaitin page for more information). This will make you something of an insider on Chaitin's world, but will probably leave one or two aspects of his work baffling. Reading Conversations then is brilliant to reinforce what you've already got and expand on it.

So this is a highly recommended book - but go for MetaMath first.

Only in hardback             

Reviewed by Brian Clegg                            

See more about the author in the Gregory Chaitin biography

Read the introduction to Chaitin's MetaMath! in our features section


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Last update 05 June 2007