Skip to main content

Journey to the Edge of Reason - Stephen Budiansky ***

 

Compared with the sciences, mathematics can seem relatively short on interesting characters. There's no doubt that the subject of Stephen Budiansky's biography - Kurt Gödel was an engaging subject, from his effective shattering of the certainties of the mathematical system to his increasing oddity in his later life, but perhaps surprisingly this claims to be the first significant biography of Gödel.

Budiansky gives us plenty on the context of Gödel's work and life - and a brief exploration of Gödel's incompleteness theorems (though their nature means that it's hard to give more than a faint impression of how they do what they do). Unfortunately, though, this is not a particularly accessible biography.

With many scientific/mathematical biographies, poor accessibility can be down to a lack of context, with too much focus on the detailed complexities of the science or the maths. Here, though, the issue is the reverse. There is far too much context, so much so that Gödel often gets lost amongst all the detail. After a few introductory pages giving a flash forward to Gödel's death, the first real chapter illustrates this all too well - there is so much material focussing on Austria as it was when Gödel was born that we don’t meet the young Gödel until page 41.

Similarly, later on, the book can feel more like a biography of, say, the disputed genius (or oddball) philosopher Wittgenstein as it is of Gödel. I don't know if it's just that there isn't too much biographical detail on Gödel himself (which would explain why it has taken so long to get a biography), or if Budiansky simply enjoys going off on tangents, but I found it hard not to keep skipping forward to find the next mention of the purported subject of the book.

A bit of a frustrating experience, then. There is no doubt that there is plenty of interesting material here, but far too much history, philosophical context and detail on obscure academics that Gödel interacted with, and not enough on the man himself.

Hardback: 
Bookshop.org

  

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Book of Minds - Philip Ball ****

It's fitting that this book on the nature of minds should be written by the most cerebral of the UK's professional science writers, Philip Ball. Like the uncertainty attached to the related concept of consciousness, exactly what a mind is , and what makes it a mind, is very difficult to pin down. Ball takes us effectively through some of the difficult definitions and unpacking involved to understand at least what researchers mean by 'mind', even if their work doesn't not necessarily enlighten us much. A lot of the book is taken up with animals and to what extent they can be said to have minds. Ball bases his picture of a mind on a phrase that is reminiscent of Nagel's famous paper on being a bat. According to Ball, an organism can be said to have a mind if there is something that is what it is like to be that organism. (You may need to read that a couple of times.) At one end of the spectrum - apes, cetaceans, dogs, for instance - it's hard to believe that t

Forget Me Not - Sophie Pavelle ***(*)

There was a lot to like in Sophie Pavelle's debut popular science title. In it, she visits ten locations in the UK (against the backdrop of the Covid lockdowns) where species that are in some way threatened by humans and/or climate change are found. The writing style is extremely light and personal, while the content on the different species was both interesting and informative. I particularly enjoyed chapters on sea grass and dung beetles, which are accompanied by coverage of a species each of butterfly, porpoise, bat, guillemot, salmon, hare, bird of prey and bumblebee. There's a nice mix of three threads - writing about the species itself, about the visit to the location (so something close to travel writing, as Pavelle attempts to avoid driving and flying as much as possible) and about the environmental side. I'm not sure the writing style is for everyone - I found it verged on arch at times, didn't endear me with several enthusiastic references to Love Island and

The Midwich Cuckoos (SF) - John Wyndham *****

The recent TV adaptation of John Wyndham's classic science fiction novel inspired me to dig out my copy (which has a much better cover than the current Penguin version) to read it again for the first time in decades - and it was a treat. Published in 1957, the book takes a cosy world that feels more typical of a 1930s novel - think, for example, of a village in Margery Allingham's or Agatha Christie's books - and applies to it a wonderfully innovative SF concept. Rather than give us the classic H. G. Wells alien invasion, which, as a character points out, is really just conventional warfare with a twist, Wyndham envisaged a far more insidious invasion where the aliens are implanted in every woman of childbearing age in the village (in a period of time known as the Dayout, when everyone is rendered unconscious).  Apparently like humans but for their bright golden eyes, a joined consciousness and the ability to influence human minds, the Children effectively take over the vil