When Einstein Walked With Godel

Excursions to the Edge of Thought

A conversation with author Jim Holt

Few can match the range and depth of knowledge of the renowned New Yorker critic-at-large Jim Holt. Officially, his intellectual turf is listed as math, physics, and philosophy but he is unafraid to follow his interests wherever they lead him. His insatiable passion for thinking deep, lucid thoughts reminds me of what Wilfrid Sheed once said about the iconic American critic Edmund Wilson — and his penchant for late-in-the-night conversation — “He has a hard time putting his brain to bed.”

In the surprise bestseller, Why Does the World Exist?, he made his debut as a master of a new form of science writing: we can call it existential cosmology.

In his new book, When Einstein Walked With Godel, he shows himself equally adept at a centuries-old genre of literature: writing essays that resonate humanistically on a number of levels.

If there’s a unifying theme — it’s existentialism — from the macrocosmic to the quantum. Written over the last two decades they were selected, as the author tell us, with “three considerations in mind.”

First, for the “depth, power and sheer beauty of the ideas they convey — these are among the most thrilling (and humbling) intellectual achievements I’ve encountered in my life.”

A second consideration is “the human factor. All these ideas come with flesh-and-blood progenitors who led highly dramatic lives. Often these lives contain an element of absurdity.”

“My third consideration…is a philosophic one” (which happens to be my favorite)… The ideas they present all bear crucially on our most general conception of the world (metaphysics), on how we came to attain and justify our knowledge (epistemology), and even on how we conduct our lives (ethics).”

Finally, his goal, he tells us, is to “enlighten the newcomer while providing a novel twist that will please the expert. And never to bore.”

Note how low he (seemingly) sets the bar. Like every leading intellectual I’ve ever talked to, they are at pains to affirm their bond with the many, their lack of specialness, of natural endowment. Their rise to the apex of their chosen profession they attribute simply to the most mundane of characteristics: primarily hard work; from early encouragement, love of their subject; insatiable curiosity; and a healthy dose of luck when needed. Thus, we hear of Einstein famously being a poor student when the reality is he managed to discover at the age of twelve his own original proof of the famous Pythagorean theorem; to devour Kant at the age of thirteen; and, by his own admission to “already be very good at advanced differential calculus when I was fifteen.” In this regard, I can remember the intensely uncomfortable startled look on the face of the celebrated cosmologist when I naively commented he was known to be a genius: it was as though I had reported a rumor was circulating he was an extraterrestrial.

By way of contrast Jim Holt seems truly modest. Maybe it’s his benign Virginia upbringing, but his entire demeanor radiates a courtliness that you almost never see in New Yorkers. He is so attentive to the reader’s needs that he effectively has an inner firewall against being boring. On the page he is never less than good company. His spare, elegant style could be an exemplar of Einstein’s famous maxim: science writing should be “simple but not simpler than it is.”

Disclosure: Two years ago I interviewed him in the Copper Still, an old-timey East Side Irish bar and café on 2nd Avenue for the popular online magazine, Smashpipe. Although he agreed immediately to meet me in the same place for a second interview there is now a stipulation — due to the mounting pressure of a looming (May 18th) pub. Date for When Einstein Walked With Godel — that he will have barely more than a half an hour to speak.

(The interview that follows has been condensed and slightly edited)

JH: “Is this a favorite place of yours?

“It’s convenient for interviews. My office is around the corner. It’s been a year though since I was last here.”

I could see he is waiting patiently, politely for the interview to begin.

“Let me start with Godel. I just don’t understand what Godel had to teach Einstein. I get it that he revolutionized logic with his incompleteness theorem; that he was considered to be on the same intellectual level as Einstein, but Einstein, so far as I know, never had the slightest interest in academic logic.”

JH: “You have to understand that the field equations of General Relativity are nonlinear, which means they are extremely difficult to solve. In coming up with a novel and undreamt-of solution to those equations, Gödel, a logician, did something that was beyond even Einstein’s abilities.”

“Yes, Godel’s hypothetical rotating universe in which he shows, mathematically, that time travel is at least logically possible. But that was a present by Godel for Einstein on his 70th birthday. Godel and Einstein were walking together for at least seven years before that.

JH: “Einstein told people that he went to his office just to have the privilege of walking home with Kurt Godel. Part of the reason was, it seems, that Godel was undaunted by Einstein’s reputation and did not hesitate to challenge his ideas. Freeman Dyson said, ‘Godel was the only one who walked and talked on equal terms with Einstein!’”

“I read your review of Janna Levin’s A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, a fictional reimagining of the actual and probable roles Kurt Godel and Alan Turing played in the famous Vienna Circle. Although you had some criticism, structurally, of the book, I was struck by how much you seemed to respect it.”

JH: “It was her first novel, but there was something there. I could feel it.”

“I don’t know when, but I saw you on a videotaped panel with Janna Levin, Oliver Burkeman as moderator and Jimena Canales…meanings of time, or something to that effect.”

JH: (Searching his memory for a moment)

“Oh yes, Brooklyn. Sure, I remember.”

JH: “You started off by immediately addressing a question to Janna Levin, sitting on your left. Was that a comfortable situation — given you had already expressed some critical reservations of her first novel — for both of you?”

JH: “Oh, yes. She was fine with what I had written about her. Actually, we were together recently at a conference on the philosophy of physics where we both nearly missed our connecting flight back home because of a postponement. In rushing back together — we bonded!”

“So, not like that physicist you told me about who was outraged you dared to express some criticism of her new book?”

“She’s still mad at me. No, Janna Levin is a lovely woman.”

“There was another woman on the panel, Jimena Canales. She spoke quite a bit. Did you get a chance to talk to her?”

JH: “Who?”

“Jimena Canales, from Harvard. She wrote The Philosopher and the Physicist, the debate between Einstein and …”

JH: “Who was the philosopher?”

“Bergson, Henri Bergson.”

JH: “Yes! 1922 the debate. Was it good?

“Well, the middle part was a little tough going…but yes…it was just tremendous.”

JH: “Then I will read it.”

It was at this point I became conscious of the relatively little time I had left. Better to dispense with my mental notes and any pretense of a linear conversation and just wing it:

“Some of the essays in the book I remember reading before. For instance, the one on string theory in the New Yorker around 2006.”

JH: “They go back about twenty years.”

“I remember about six others, but the rest were new to me.

JH: “Six is quite a lot.”

“They’re really all at a high level.”

JH: Thank you. I was afraid the one on infinitesimals was a bore.”

“I loved that chapter.”

JH: “Thank you again.”

“One of my favorite chapters was the one on John Von Neumann and his role in the development of the hydrogen bomb. I’d heard many times how it had one thousand times the killing power of the atom bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, but you made it come alive in a way it never had before. Is it true that the hydrogen bomb that was first tested simply vaporized “a tiny island in the Pacific?”

JH: (shaking his head) “It was horrifying.”

“That detail, how an American fighter plane was sent into the mushroom cloud to investigate — and almost immediately began burning up, spinning out of control and almost plunging into the Pacific”…”It was chilling.”

JH: “They almost never talk about things like that.”

“I remember how you described the dropping of the hydrogen bomb: they had released a small sun, but without the gravity necessary to keep it from flying apart…”

JH: “Well, I really worked hard on rewriting those essays.”

“The only one I had trouble with was the one on the four color problem. After a while, I felt I was going mentally color blind from trying to visualize the different configurations…but I got through it…”

JH: “I don’t know why that problem is so famous and people are so interested in it, but they seem to be. Maybe, because it’s really an easy problem to understand…”

“You really read all those references you cite?

JH: “It’s not that hard.”

“I spoke to one of your editorial assistants and asked her if she had expectations the book would be a bestseller, and she said: That’s the hope!”

JH: (Laughs) “What else could she say? But no, a book of essays…that’s not going to be a bestseller…”

“Well, they didn’t think Why Does the World Exist? would be a bestseller and it was.”

JH: “They were surprised…I was too…”

“In the past two years, I keep running into references to it. The book has legs. Is it continuing to sell?”

JH: “Well, someone in China bought the reprint rights to it; not for very much though…but still it is in China…I call it my play money.”

“There are many people you greatly admire. Is there someone you especially like?”

JH: “If there’s one person I could be, it’s Ed Witten. He’s head and shoulders above everyone else.”

“He’s the only physicist to ever win the Fields Medal in mathematics. But do you think he is a great physicist?”

JH: “He originated entirely new fields in mathematical physics.”

“But is he a great physicist? Many people, as you know, think string theory as a model for physical reality is simply wrong.”

JH: “That remains to be seen. There is no doubt that he is a great, innovative mathematician.”

“You talk in a similar vein about Saul Kripke. How many people rank him as the only real genius to emerge in philosophy since Wittgenstein.”

JH: “I think Kripke is a genius. There’s no doubt he’s eccentric. He goes his own way. But his influence is prodigious, it’s unmatched.”

“Well, I can’t decide whether it will be worth it to me to make the effort to read Naming and Necessity, whether it might be too technical. Would you recommend it?”

He considers the question for just a moment before answering it.

JH: “It’s not really technical. It’s full of brilliant insights. It’s well written. Yes, you might think of it as just a theory of naming and meaning…how important can it be? But there’s really something profound about it and…to me of course…thrilling…”

“Well, I do have to thank your unqualified praise (in Why Does the World Exist) of Thomas Nagel’s The View From Nowhere. On the basis of that, I read the book and absolutely loved it. The first chapter on the universality of the objective point of viewpoint, as differentiated from the ever-pressing subjective point of view, was the best treatment of the subject I’ve ever encountered. I’ve gone on to read Mortal Thoughts and What Does It All Mean, both of which I thought were great for different reasons. And I’m now reading The Last Word, which I’m very, very impressed with. Would you agree that it ranks high in his canon?”

JH: (Thoughtfully) Well, generally The View From Nowhere, because of the way it gathers together all his insights on the objective point of view, is a considered his most important book. The Last Word is regarded as one of his best.”

“The last time I saw you, you were reading Peter Woit’s (someone we both know) Quantum Theory, Groups and Representations. What did you think of it?

JH: “I think it’s a great book. It has all of quantum mechanics in it.”

“How has it been received by the mathematical community?”

JH: “We’ll have to see.”

“Let me ask you this. You say in the book that not a single scientific discovery came out of classical Greece. But what about Archimedes? He’s credited with establishing the foundation of both hydrostatics and statics, as well as mathematically explaining how the lever works.”

JH: “You’re right! I should have said, ‘nothing about dynamics came out of classical Greece.’”

“And I want to ask you about Peter Singer, and his famous “proof” that we should all give a sizable portion of our income to the world’s poor. I like Thomas Nagel’s objection — that how does he know that by everybody depriving themselves of a sizable part of their income — the result might be that collectively we all wind up less happy than before!”

It was at this point that Jim Holt completely surprised me.

JH: “We’re having a free form conversation! I like this…I really like it.”

Emboldened, I decided to mention my first and best-known book, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Patient: Psychodynamic Studies of the Creative Personality:

“I don’t know if you’ve heard of that book.”

JH: “I have.”

(Skeptical) “You have?”

JH: “Yes.”

“Did you read it?”

JH: “Well, I know about it…(and perhaps sensing I needed more he added)…what was the book you gave me the last time?”

“God and Therapy, What We Believe When No One Is Watching.”

JH: Yes, I have that.”

“Did you read it?”

JH: I’ve looked at it.”

“Does that mean you’ve read some of it?”

JH: “It used to be in the living room. Now I have it in a bookcase near my bedroom and I can see it.”

“Well, that doesn’t actually do it, Jim.”

JH: (Smiling) “Quid pro quo, eh?”

“A last question. Do you believe in moral certainty?”

JH: (Leaning forward sympathetically) “It’s not relativism. What Nagel and Peter Singer are saying is that certain moral truths, not all, of course, are objective. Here’s how the argument goes: It is wrong not to save the life of your own child. It’s wrong for someone else, who may have little interest in the life of your child, not to save the life of their child. So while the choice of objects to be rescued may vary considerably, everyone agrees that it’s never moral to be indifferent to the loss of life of an innocent child, especially if you can do something about it. That’s step one in the argument…”

I had no doubt that he could have effortlessly produced step two, step three…as many steps as were logically required by any standard of rigorous thinking to which you adhered. Delivering spur-of-the-moment tutorials was his thing. But I could see, as the poet says, he had promises to keep and miles to go. He had been more than generous in expanding the agreed-upon interview curfew.

I assured him I would hold the interview as a courtesy until after the official May 18th release date of When Einstein Walked with Godel. He warmly shook my hand and thanked me one last time.

To whom then is this book recommended?

To two kinds of people, those who have read Jim Holt and those who haven’t.

Postscript: For those who would like to read more, see part two next week:

Gerald Alper


God and Therapy: What We Believe
 When No One is Watching