...a companion blog to "Math-Frolic," specifically for interviews, book reviews, weekly-linkfests, and longer posts or commentary than usually found at the Math-Frolic site.

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"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show." ---Bertrand Russell (1907) Rob Gluck

"I have come to believe, though very reluctantly, that it [mathematics] consists of tautologies. I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-legged animal is an animal." ---Bertrand Russell (1957)

******************************************************************** Rob Gluck

Sunday, April 21, 2013

From Whence...?


"The more the universe seems comprehensible the more it also seems pointless."
-- physicist Steven Weinberg as famously quoted in Jim Holt's "Why Does the World Exist?"


I'm currently finishing Jim Holt's bestseller (and one of the NY Times' Top 10 nonfiction picks for 2012), "Why Does the World Exist?" (now out in paperback). Won't write a full review since it's more philosophy than math or science, but will recommend it to those with a philosophical bent, or who have enjoyed any of the other recent books on that most fundamental of questions, 'why is there something instead of nothing?"

The first half of Holt's book, while good, takes a little bit of time to gain traction, and the second half is especially good and invigorating. Holt keeps the sometimes deep philosophical and theoretical discussion not only accessible, but also moving along at a pace which doesn't get too bogged down with any one set of arguments or thinker. If you are someone who scoffs at the very idea of reading an entire book on a question that essentially can't be answered, then you'll want to pass on this volume, but if you enjoy seeing the wide variety of cerebral exercises major thinkers have employed to approach this basic conundrum than Holt takes you on a good ride, tossing in personal anecdotes along the way.

My favorite chapter (not too surprisingly) is chapter 10 on Platonism, where, in addition to Plato, the likes of Kurt Gödel, Roger Penrose, Max Tegmark, Bertrand Russell, and Hartry Field are among those making appearances in the debate over whether there is an independent platonic realm of mathematics (apart from human consciousness), or is mathematics merely a human construction. Both sides have very astute and brilliant proponents.

The mini-portraits of the many fascinating individuals Holt discusses or holds court with in this book are just as interesting as the ideas they put forth. John Updike fans will find a chapter toward the end (#13) with their literary hero. Heidegger, Quine, Wittgenstein, Leibniz, Richard Swinburne, David Deutsch, Adolf Grunbaum, Derek Parfit, John Leslie, Thomas Nagel, Robert Nozick, are among the intriguing panoply of players (living and dead) who are aired in these pages (many individuals who I was not previously familiar with at all).  Some of the book's philosophical discussion is a bit muddied in semantics (as could be expected), and I prefer the discussions with scientists, but Holt deftly works his way through all of it, be it religion, cosmology, or quantum mechanics. And at the end comes a moving chapter on the death of his own mother.

For some extended reviews of the book here are two (of several) from the Web:

http://bnreview.barnesandnoble.com/t5/Reviews-Essays/Why-Does-the-World-Exist/ba-p/8475

http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-02-08/opinions/36990295_1_wrong-question-answer-universe

Of course the volume reaches no final resolution and there is a bit of predictability in so much as certain issues keep recurring as sticking points, yet the intellectual exercise remains entertaining. Holt notes early on in the volume that the question of why the world exists is "so simple that it would occur only to a child." Maybe that explains why, despite its intractability,  we find it such an irresistible inquiry... it makes us all feel like children again in this great big farfetched universe of ours (...or, multiverse).

One last thing:
The quotation I've long-used from Bertrand Russell heading my Math-Frolic blog comes from early in his career when his optimism about mathematics and empiricism was strong. Holt's book (again the chapter on Platonism) introduced me to another quote, I was unfamiliar with, from much later in Russell's storied life. I love the quote, and change-of-heart it expresses, so much so that I've added it to the Math-Frolic blog heading, and will leave you with it here:
"I have come to believe, though very reluctantly, that it [mathematics] consists of tautologies. I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-legged animal is an animal."
[NOTE: I've actually since moved the paired quotes over to the MathTango heading.]

[...This all reminds me of yet another brand new book now showing up in bookstores: not meaning to stray too far from mathematics, but computer scientist/keen-thinker Douglas Hofstadter's latest tome is, "Surfaces and Essences" (about the role of 'analogy' in human cognition), and I suspect it is must-reading for anyone interested in cognition. (Hofstadter was author of "Gödel, Escher, Bach," one of the most acclaimed works of nonfiction of the last half-century, and several works since. He also took over Martin Gardner's column at Scientific American for a few years back when Gardner retired.)]


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