Walking with Einstein and Gödel

I picked up the book When Einstein Walked with Gödel this past week at the library because of the title and the photo on the cover of the two mathematicians walking across a campus in Princeton, New Jersey.

I was disappointed that the entire book was not about the two of them, but is instead a collection of essay by Jim Holt. The title essay is one I really like as it deals with one of my favorite topics – our changing notions of time. It comes from a friendship between Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel when they were both working in Princeton in the 1930s. Einstein had shaken the physical world with his work, and Gödel had shaken mathematics. They ended up taking almost daily walks to their offices at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Gödel would have looked pretty fancy (he liked white linen suits) and Einstein would have looked like the absent-minded genius that we know with his crazy hair and too-big pants.

But what really interests me in reading the essay today was the walking. Today was a very nice spring day that was warmer than it has been. I took the covers of the deck furniture and sat outside with my lunch and coffee. And I went for a walk.

I love walking and I am a firm believer in the power of walking to spark creativity and thought. (More on that tomorrow) Of course, it would be great to have the content of those walking conversations between Al and Kurt. I imagine that the conversations went beyond math and physics, though I’m sure math and science were the main themes.

I have so far only skimmed a few of the other essays in the book, but each could be a walking conversation. Did you know that the word “scientist” was only coined in 1833? It was a philosopher, William Whewell, who used it in his efforts to “professionalize” science and separate it from philosophy. Holt quotes Freeman Dyson (another person at the Institute who I actually got to meet and talk with briefly when he gave a talk at NJIT) as saying that “Science grew to a dominant position in public life, and philosophy shrank. Philosophy shrank even further when it became detached from religion and from literature.”

I certainly couldn’t keep up with Einstein and Godel on the science of time, but I would love to put in my own ideas and get some feedback from the boys.

Some of Holt’s questions that he attempts to answer in the essay are also intriguing ideas for a walking conversation. Does time exist? What is infinity? Why do mirrors reverse left and right but not up and down? And the biographical sketches of famous and not-so-famous thinkers makes me want to go on walks with them too – Emmy Noether, Alan Turing, Benoit Mandelbrot, Ada Lovelace and others.

A Field Guide To Getting Lost

Since I first wrote over the summer about deliberately and accidentally, literally and figuratively, getting lost, I have been a bit more tuned in to the topic. It must have also struck a chord with others because that original post and subsequent related ones seem to be more popular here.

I was in a bookstore this weekend and came across  A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit.  I bought a copy, but it’s down a few books on my To-Read list now. Here’s a few things that caught my attention about the book (besides the title) and what I have gleaned from the cover, some skimming and a look online.

Solnit says that the word “lost” derives from the Old Norse for disbanding an army. That’s a tough connection to make.  She makes the connection of making “a truce with the wide world.” I need to think about those two things some more

The book is a set of loosely linked essays by Solnit who is described as a cultural historian. It seems like the essays may have led from one to the other – like wandering in the woods. How else would you get from early American captivity narratives to hermit crabs, to conquistadors and a grandmother in an asylum and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo? She wanders the American West to country music (after spending her youth listening to punk rock) and adds her own narrative too.

Not all reviews of the book I found were positive.  In The New Yorker:
“Solnit’s writing is as abstract and intangible as her subject, veering between oceanic lyricism (“Blue is the color of longing for the distance you never arrive in”) and pensées about the limitations of human understanding (“Between words is silence, around ink whiteness, behind every map’s information is what’s left out, the unmapped and unmappable”) that seem profound but are actually banal once you think about them.”

Well, I was attracted to it by its title, and we know that’s not the way to pick a book, but I’m going to give it a chance. And if I like it, I might just wander over to another book of hers called Wanderlust: A History of Walking which sounds like a good follow-up to being lost.