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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.
|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|
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