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.
"Formal and informal discussions of quantum mechanics and their strange consequences and other rarefied matters are fascinating. ... There is a lot of value here..."
-- New Scientist, April 19, 2003
"[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."
-- The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 15, 2003
"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."
-- Science News, July 5, 2003
"Casti knows his subject and explains it lucidly; the discussions of physics and math are reasonably accessible and quite engaging. ...readers eager to explore the principles of theoretical physics and math may appreciate Casti's reconstruction of the great debates."
-- Publishers Weekly, April 28, 2003
"Fun, if you dig quantum mechanics... physics... you know."
-- Constant Reader column, June 2003
"We live in the age of computers. Like other inventions that serve us well, computers also have a history. One important dimension of that history relates to a theme as abstruse and abstract as the limits of human knowledge. ... In this slender volume, science writer Casti distills the essentials of this and a number of related topics (like quantum logic and thinking machines) in a fascinating genre of scientific fiction. ... The players come alive in the re-created episodes. Those who are familiar with the names and topics will find the book delightful, if not deep; but even those with only a basic background in science and mathematics will find it absorbing and informative. Summing Up: Highly recommended."
-- CHOICE, November 2003
"...the problems of the day are described in an interesting and useful way. ...a work like this is a terrific way to creatively explore profound concepts... The book does well in introducing important figures and questions in the fields of mathematics, physics, and computer science."
-- MAA (Mathematical Association of America) Online
"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. ... 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."
-- Library Journal, May 1, 2003
"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."
-- Booklist, April 15, 2003
"...the book provides a very interesting vignette of intellectual history, sketching out ideas and personalities that have had a lasting importance."
-- TechCentralStation, May 28, 2003
"John Casti has dedicated himself to bridging the gap between the supposed 'two cultures' of science and the humanities, and The One True Platonic Heaven, as entertaining as it is informative, is another strong lifeline thrown across the chasm."
-- John Banville, author of the novels Doctor Copernicus and Kepler
"In this highly imaginative book, Casti raises the question of whether Nature itself raises barriers to our understanding. The One True Platonic Heaven is a fictional confection with a hard center of scientific truth."
-- Gregg Herken, author of Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller
" [A] must read."
-- Today's Books, August 4, 2003