...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

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Master of Logical Legerdemain


Logician, Musician, Magician, Mathematician, Candlestick-maker?....

An Overview of "Four Lives: A Celebration of Raymond Smullyan"  edited by Jason Rosenhouse

If you're a Raymond Smullyan fan, go get Jason Rosenhouse's new volume, "Four Lives: A Celebration of Raymond Smullyan," NOW! And if you're not familiar with Smullyan, but do enjoy logic, puzzles, and math, the same advice goes. I was thrilled to see a tribute to Smullyan come out while he is still among us (his 95th birthday is next month), and to learn more about Dr. Smullyan than I already knew -- EVERYthing I read here raised his pedestal even higher than I already beheld it previously!

Though Rosenhouse is editor (not author) of this volume, his love for Smullyan shines through, as well. Smullyan is an accomplished logician, musician, magician, and mathematician/philosopher (I believe those are the "Four lives" referred to in the title?), who, in his 90s still flirts with all these subjects… oh, and, with the ladies as well, I might add. I consistently find Rosenhouse, by the way, to be one of the best popular math expositors around today (though I don't always agree with some of his more philosophical writings), and this tribute volume is another job well-done.

Part 1 ("Experiencing Raymond") of this offering, brings together an array of folks who knew Smullyan from different perspectives at various times, to pay tribute to him. Each of these essays, some short, some long, are lovely, insightful remembrances. I'm only familiar with 2-3 of the over 20 people who offer thoughts here. They are all good, but my two favorite pieces (and they are also the two longest remembrances) come from Bruce Horowitz, a one-time Smullyan grad student, who writes a wonderful, endearing account of the ongoing student-teacher relationship, and Christopher Maslanka (a puzzle-writer himself) who learned of Smullyan, like many of us did, through the writing of Martin Gardner, and who offers a more wide-ranging tribute to the master logician. I would almost recommend that you start this book by reading Maslanka's account first to give you a good feel and overview (the writers in Part 1 are simply laid out in alphabetical order, so there is no reason not to skip around in any order while reading through them.)
The Introduction to the book, by the way, is Rosenhouse's own story of how he came to know Raymond, and how he ended up as editor for this volume.
Part 2 of the book ("Mathematics and Logic") is probably the driest, toughest section (depending on your background/interest in formal logic), with four contributors (including Douglas Hofstadter) dealing with mathematical logic. There is a rambly, fun "Afterword" to this section written by Smullyan himself, in his typical playful (and punful) style.

Part 3 is a wide-ranging sampler of Smullyan's writing, beginning with a heavy dose of Raymond's bread-and-butter knight/knave (truthteller/liar) puzzles. Also included is one of my very favorite puzzles, the "two envelope" paradox, even though it didn't originate with Smullyan. Toward the end comes a section from Raymond's "The Tao Is Silent" volume, another favorite of mine (on Taoism). And I was happy to learn from this volume that he actually wrote a couple of other spiritual-oriented volumes of which I was unaware. On a separate note, the listed bibliography also includes three "personal/autobiographical" works which I'll have to now look for.

Like Martin Gardner's autobiography, this book will appeal primarily to those who are already enamored of its subject, but hopefully, along the way, it will also pull a few additional folks into the corral of Smullyan fandom.

I'm not sure I envy Dr. Rosenhouse's task here of capturing Raymond Smullyan in 300 pages (akin, I would say, to catching lightning in a bottle!), but he has done an admirable job of it. My sole regret is that there is not more on Smullyan's childhood/youth in it. When someone is as multi-talented, interesting, engaging, and well-loved as Raymond Smullyan, a reader wants to know more about the background that made this individual the person they became. But there's little insight here into Raymond's childhood/family life, formative teen years, or college years. I suppose we'll have to wait for an official biography to come along for that.

It's always difficult for me to think of Martin Gardner without thinking of Dr. Smullyan in tandem, so similar are these two brilliant and humble giants in many regards. Raymond's name, appearance, subject matter, and writing style are all just a tad odder or less smooth than Martin Gardner's, and so he has always seemed slightly off to the edge of Gardner's front-and-center stage appearance and facile way with words [somewhat odd too, given that Gardner was probably the shyer, more reticent/introverted of the two]. For now, Smullyan has a bit of an academic cult-like following, but when he is no longer with us, I suspect his legacy will, like Gardner's and also that of Richard Feynman, broaden out to an even wider audience. And deservedly so! I'm thankful for Dr. Rosenhouse's contribution toward that end.

I'll close out with some of the words from Christopher Maslanka's Part 1 essay:
"…Smullyan's achievement seems to me quite unique. Not only has he made original contributions and advances to mathematical logic, and has expounded elements of the subject in a way that reveals them more clearly, strikingly, and economically; but also he has drawn people at all stages of education to an appreciation of some level of his subject. He manages to involve both the student and the serious academic, the young and the old, the passer-by and the dilettante in mathematical logic. He does this in a rounded way, with a charm and ease which makes it seem like legerdemain."
Indeed, he does… and, I say that, as a knight!


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