The One True Platonic Heaven: A Scientific Fiction of the Limits of Knowledge

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Overview

By the author of The Cambridge Quintet, John L. Casti’s new book continues the tradition of combining science fact with just the right dose of fiction. Part novel, part science – wholly informative and entertaining.

In the fall of 1933 the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, welcomed its first faculty member, Albert Einstein. With this superstar on the roster, the Institute was able to attract many more of the greatest scholars, scientists, and poets from around the world. It was to be an intellectual haven, a place where the most brilliant minds on the planet, sheltered from the outside world’s cares and calamities, could study and collaborate and devote their time to the pure and exclusive pursuit of knowledge. For many of them, it was the “one, true, platonic heaven.”

Over the years, key figures at the Institute began to question the limits to what science could tell us about the world, pondering the universal secrets it might unlock. Could science be the ultimate source of truth; or are there intrinsic limits, built into the very fabric of the universe, to what we can learn? In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, this important question was being asked and pondered upon by some of the Institute’s deepest thinkers.

Enter the dramatis personae to illuminate the science and the philosophy of the time. Mathematical logician Kurt Godel was the unacknowledged Grant Exalted Ruler of this platonic estate – but he was a ruler without a scepter as he awaited the inexplicably indefinite postponement of his promotion to full, tenured professor. Also in residence was his colleague, the Hungarian-American polymath, John van Neumann, developer of game theory, the axiomatic foundations of quantum mechanics, and the digital computer – stymied by the Institute’s refusal to sanction his bold proposal to actually build a computer. One of Godel’s closest friends figures large in this story: Albert Einstein, by common consensus the greatest physicist the 20th century had ever known. And, of course, the director the Institute, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, must by necessity be key to any story that focuses in on this time and place.

Author Casti elegantly sets the stage and then masterfully directs this impressive cast of characters—with able assists by many “minor-character” icons like T. S. Eliot, Wolfgang Pauli, Freeman Dyson, and David Bohm, to tell a story of science, history, and ideas. As we watch events unfold (some of which are documented fact while others are creatively imagined fiction), we are witness to the discussions and deliberations of this august group… privy to wide-ranging conversations on thinking machines, quantum logic, biology as physics, weather forecasting, the structure of economic systems, the distinction between mathematics and natural science, the structure of the universe, and the powers of the human mind – all centered around the question of the limits to scientific knowledge.

Imaginatively conceived and artfully executed, The One True Platonic Heaven is an accessible and intriguing presentation of some of the deepest scientific and philosophical ideas of the 20th century.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist
Imagine a physics textbook in which the great scientists suddenly come to life as unpredictable characters sauntering down shady streets as they debate cosmic theories. Just as he did in The Cambridge Quintet (1998), Casti blends real science with compelling fiction. … Thanks to Casti’s daring imagination, we are allowed to intrude on the exclusive world of IAS and listen in on the profound conversations of its brightest luminaries.
New Scientist
Formal and informal discussions of quantum mechanics and their strange consequences and other rarefied matters are fascinating. … There is a lot of value here…
The Philadelphia Inquirer
[Casti’s] book is fun to read as much for the thoughts it stimulates as for those it addresses. … When his cast of characters settles down to talk about scientific matters, the clarity of exposition makes for compelling reading.
Science News
Casti takes some license in putting words into these mouths, but he provides insight into these people’s thoughts and opinions on topics ranging from quantum logic to the structure of economic systems. The exercise provides a candid look at the logical barriers that great scientists have overcome in their pursuits.
Today's Books
[A] must read.
TechCentralStation
the book provides a very interesting vignette of intellectual history, sketching out ideas and personalities that have had a lasting importance.
Constant Reader column
Fun, if you dig quantum mechanics… physics… you know.
Publishers Weekly
Mathematician Kurt Godel, atomic physicist Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein are among the cast of Casti's new novel (after The Cambridge Quintet), a speculative recreation of the debates that took place in the late 1940s at the Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study. The book, which Casti describes as "scientific fiction," is composed mainly of dialogues between the scientists and mathematicians as they ponder the limits of human logic. These discussions aren't entirely abstract; the professors consider the philosophical and psychological implications of nascent computer technology and the atom bomb, among other inventions. Casti laces the book with descriptions of the IAS, the "platonic heaven" of the title, where the best thinkers of their day are able to do their research and talk to one another free from the other responsibilities of academia. T.S. Eliot, the lone poet spending "a term in Princeton" with the scientists, makes a cameo appearance during one of the afternoon teas at which the researchers gather daily. Casti knows his subject and explains it lucidly; the discussions of physics and math are reasonably accessible and quite engaging. But his attempts to make the scientists into characters rely on stiff, cliched descriptions ("Eliot's poetic soul cringed at this interchange"), and the conversational framework is stilted: "Oppenheimer turned to Eliot and asked in a resonant directorial voice, `Well, Tom, I see that Pauli and Weyl haven't yet managed to reconcile themselves in the realm of physics. What do you think about the aesthetic differences between the poet and the physicist?'" The book doesn't quite succeed as fiction, but readers eager to explore the principles of theoretical physics and math may appreciate Casti's reconstruction of the great debates. 3-city author tour. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
What do geniuses talk about when they get together socially? Effective science writing can convey the personalities of scientists, revealing their humanity. In this work of "scientific fiction," Casti takes that technique a step further by inventing situations and supposing dialogs between some of the heroes of 20th-century science. Based upon fact, the scenario is set at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study in the late 1940s, and the dramatis personae include the likes of Albert Einstein, Kurt Godel, John von Nuemann, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and other elite intellectuals. Their fictionalized conversations, which take place in settings from the corner diner to the university board room, represent the actual beliefs, theories, and philosophies of the various protagonists on the nature of science. As would be expected among a gathering of super brains, the ideas cover the gamut, the intellectual dynamic is lively, and, above all, the conversation honestly reflects the positions of each individual. Still, the situations can seem staged, the dialog scripted, and the personalities one-dimensional. As a pedagogical work, this book succeeds in presenting the viewpoints of important historical scientists. As a speculative work, it succeeds in raising valid questions about the scope and limits of scientific endeavor. The fictionalization, though, is entirely a technique for achieving those purposes and succeeds only to the degree that its contrivances do not create distractions.-Gregg Sapp, Science Lib., SUNY at Albany Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780309085472
  • Publisher: National Academies Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2003
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.32 (w) x 7.84 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Table of Contents

Preface
Dramatis Personae
Prologue 1
Ch. 1 A Walk Down Mercer Street 15
Ch. 2 Teatime at the IAS 29
Ch. 3 Goodtime Johnny 43
Ch. 4 Godel at the Blackboard 65
Ch. 5 The Boardroom 83
Ch. 6 Late-Night Thoughts of the Greatest Physicist 105
Ch. 7 An Evening at Olden Manor 119
Ch. 8 The Verdicts 145
Epilogue 157
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Interviews & Essays

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Tenure
During my graduate student days as an aspiring mathematician over 30 years ago, if someone had told me that today I'd be earning a living as a science writer, consultant, lecturer, and businessman, I would have told them, "No way! You're confusing me with somebody else." At that time, I envisioned a very ordinary, pedestrian future in academia, clawing my way up the tenure ladder, one rung at a time, teaching the same old courses semester after semester, doing a little research that perhaps a half dozen people in the world could even pronounce, let alone care about, in some exotic backwater of the mathematical swamp. Well, things turned out rather differently -- but not through any grand design or plan of my own. It is indeed true that the cosmos works in strange and mysterious ways.

I suppose the seeds of my current life were sown when I took a job in 1967 as a computer programmer at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, to finance my graduate studies. That was my first exposure to a broad array of problems and ideas, ranging from nuclear physics to cost-benefit analysis to radiative transfer in the atmosphere. Being forced to understand these matters well enough to describe them to a computer forced me to consider how different corners of the intellectual landscape related to each other. Later positions at analogous interdisciplinary research centers, including the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Vienna, Austria, and the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, only reinforced these leanings. And, in fact, it was expiration of my contract at IIASA in 1986 that served as the stimulus for my venture into the world of popular-science writing.

Following my first trade science book, Paradigms Lost, which recounted several of the biggest unsolved problems in science, I began to wonder about whether there were questions about the real world of nature and humans that the tools of science simply could not provide an effective answer for. Since the work by Gödel and Turing in the 1930s, mathematicians had known that there were perfectly sensible questions about numbers that the tools of mathematics were powerless to settle, yes or no. But what about outside mathematics? This query led to my 1991 book, Searching for Certainty, which addressed the twin problems of prediction and explanation in science by examining those pillars in the light of questions about weather forecasting, stock price movements, the outbreak of warfare, and other areas of everyday concern. A couple of years after this volume's publication, a workshop on the limits to scientific knowledge that I co-organized at the Santa Fe Institute sharpened my thinking on many of these matters, especially in regard to the central role played by computation in providing a scientific answer to a question.

At the same time I was considering these matters in the twilight zone between science and philosophy, I was putting together The Cambridge Quintet, a semifictional work in which several great thinkers -- Wittgenstein, Turing, Schrödinger, C. P. Snow, and J.B.S. Haldane -- argued the possibility of a thinking machine over a 1949 dinner party conversation at Christ's College, Cambridge. This volume, published in 1998, set me on the track of exploring the question of limits to scientific knowledge in the same semifictional format that readers had reacted so favorably to with The Cambridge Quintet. And so emerged the little book The One True Platonic Heaven, in which this matter of computation and its relationship to the limits to knowledge, scientific-style, are considered by many of the heavy hitters at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton shortly after the Second World War.

And that, in a nutshell, is how my path to the university and to tenure got derailed by science -- and its limits. Sometimes there are things that are just more important -- and vastly more interesting -- than tenure! John L. Casti

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