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Review - The One True Platonic Heaven - John L. Casti

 

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In an interesting conceit, which Casti has employed before, this book brings together some top notch real people in a fictional series of discussions in order to explore a scientific concept - in this case, the limits of knowledge, whether there is a difference between the limits of what can be worked out in the physical world and the inevitable incompleteness of maths as discovered by Gödel.

The approach sort of works. The conversations themselves are often very effective (this has been an approach used for centuries), but in the early pages, the surrounding descriptive text is sometimes a little uncomfortable, and occasionally downright strange. (For instance, he describes Weyl and Pauli conversing in "staccato-like German", then comments after Weyl's first reported remark that his "faint German accent [was] still noticable." Does he really mean that Weyl only spoke German with a German accent that was still faintly noticable? Doesn't seem likely.) By about 1/3 of the way through the book, though, the writing suddenly gets much better - and it's the later book that deserves those four stars.

Although the book indubitably is about the limits of knowledge, perhaps the best thing about it is the insight into the politics of the Institute of Advanced Science at Princeton, Einstein's workplace for most of his time in America.  Two key decisions face the Institute. Gödel wants to be made up to a full professor. His math skills indubitably make this desirable, but his odd, verging on the unstable, personality means that many of the faculty don't want him as a decision maker. And John von Neumann, the Institute's star mathematician, wants to build an electronic computer. The feeling is strong that if he isn't allowed to, he won't stay. Yet the whole ethos of the Institute is for pure Platonic theorising without getting their hands dirty with practical (or the ultimate insult "engineering") matters.

While the scientists' deliberations on what can be known are interesting, these two political struggles are fascinating, and Casti even manages to tie them into the overall theme of the book - a neat trick.

You need to be patient with this book. It's not a page turner (except, perhaps in the meetings discussing the political issues) and it's not gee-whiz science. But it will reward your patience.

Only in hardback                                                

Reviewed by Peter Spitz

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Last update 05 June 2007