TCS Daily

Gvdel, Einstein, Bomb

By Kenneth Silber - May 28, 2003 12:00 AM

The year is 1946, more or less. The place is Princeton, New Jersey. At the Institute for Advanced Studies, top scientists and mathematicians - Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, John von Neumann, Robert Oppenheimer, among others - are contemplating the nature of knowledge while confronting several practical issues: Should the Institute, known for its dedication to pure research, develop the new technology known as the computer? What do Gödel's undecidability theorems really mean, and should Gödel get a promotion?

While such questions focus on the logical and practical limits of knowledge, there lurks in the background a question fraught with political and moral significance: Should the United States develop the "Super," a weapon also known as the hydrogen bomb?

Such is the premise of The One True Platonic Heaven: A Scientific Fiction on the Limits of Knowledge, by science writer John L. Casti. The book is a blend of fact and fiction, similar to Casti's earlier book The Cambridge Quintet, in which mid-20th century thinkers considered the prospects for artificial intelligence. The One True Platonic Heaven's title evokes the Institute itself, a place that gives eminent thinkers free rein to pursue their interests.

The One True Platonic Heaven is somewhat awkward as a narrative. It is unlikely that even stiffly formal scholars ever spoke in the stilted dialogue that Casti writes for them. Nonetheless, the book provides a very interesting vignette of intellectual history, sketching out ideas and personalities that have had a lasting importance.

The 20th century opened remarkable new vistas for science and technology. However, the century also saw the pursuit of knowledge bump into unexpected theoretical obstacles. In physics, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle set limits on the ability to predict the behavior of objects. In math, Gödel's work set limits on the ability to prove propositions in any formal system of rules and axioms. Casti interweaves his real-life characters' efforts to make sense of these limits with their more prosaic concerns about the operations of the Institute.

Various figures and issues from outside math and physics make appearances in the book. Businessman and politician Lewis L. Strauss, a member of the Institute's governing board, worries that many of the scientists are distracted theoreticians who fail to recognize the Soviet threat. T.S. Eliot is on hand at a Princeton tea party amid discussion of how scientific knowledge differs from poetry. On occasion, the boundary between fact and fiction is frustratingly unclear. Did Eliot really meet any of these people? An epilogue addressing such points in more detail would have been welcome.

The remarkable von Neumann, who made major contributions to fields ranging from quantum physics to economics to nuclear strategy, figures prominently in the narrative. He presses the Institute's members to build a computer and to give Gödel a promotion. He also favors a hard line against the Soviet Union. Von Neumann had not only a brilliant intellect but also an engaging personality and a capacity to get things done. He was supposedly an inspiration for the title character in the film Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, but if so, he deserves far better.

The One True Platonic Heaven does not delve much into questions of knowledge and certainty as applied to economics and political philosophy. It would have been interesting (albeit quite fictitious) to include economist Friedrich Hayek and novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand in conversations at the Institute. Hayek would have noted how the distribution of knowledge undermines efforts at central planning. Rand would have espoused her views on the "supremacy of reason." There might have been a shouting match.

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