"As part of its millennium celebration, Time magazine published a list of the 100 greatest people of the 20th century. On this list was their choice of the greatest mathematician--Kurt Gödel. Most likely, if you were to randomly select 100 people and ask them, 'Do you know who Kurt Gödel is?', it's almost certain you'd receive not a single positive response." (from the Preface)Whenever I pick up a non-fiction book that features small pages, large font, and fewer than two hundred pages (including two or three numbered, but blank, pages between each chapter!) I become a little worried. I usually prefer something that when originally written was 1,000 pages of small font and was expertly edited down to half that length or so to remove the redundancies and to improve the conciseness of the speech. When we are talking about a biography, this is even more the case. Whose life isn't worth more than 200 pages?
By looking at the cover, title, and preface you'd think that this book is going to be a biography on Kurt Gödel. But someone ignoring these things, who just read the 10 chapters (in chapters 6 and 7, for instance, Gödel the person isn't even mentioned--merely his theorem on the last page of each), would have a hard time telling you that this book is a biography. If you told them it was a biography (which you may have to as they may guess that it is a history of AI or something else other than a biography altogether), and asked them whose biography it was, they still may have to guess another name (like Turing) before providing the correct answer!
The authors claim that the attempt of this work is to "bring Gödel's work and life to the attention of a broad audience", but the work is so superificial that broad audiences won't be interested in reading it and those of us who want a little meat on Gödel's life and work will be left wanting by the last page.
There are numerous questions about Gödel's life that the authors hint about but fail to officially raise, let alone answer. For instance, on page 83, we are told that Gödel concerned "himself increasingly with the philosophical implications of his mathematical discoveries" while at Princeton. But we aren't told what those philosophical implications are, how Gödel dealt with them, or what, if any, his ultimate conclusions were. These are the kinds of questions, discussions, and answers that make a biography worthwhile.
Biographies also frequently dabble in the more sensational or bizarre aspects of a person's life. Not so here. Gödel was certainly a strange character. That is hinted at on several occasions but no elaboration is ever given. He spent time in a mental institution, thought people were trying to poison him, had his wife feed him spoonful by spoonful so he didn't die of starvation, and was almost certainly a sociopath. However, these quirky characteristics are never delved into, analyzed, or otherwise brought to the surface in an attempt to fully explain Gödel, his life, or their impact on his profession. We hear nothing of Gödel's belief in ESP and occultism and little of his belief in transmigration except for one sentence on page 194, the second to last page in the book, which merely states that "Gödel later came to be interested in ESP, transmigration, and occultism in all its variants."
To go even further down this road of potentially important items in Gödel's life that the reader is merely given a glimpse, if that, of, on page 88 we are told in a single sentence that Gödel proved the existence of God! A single sentence with no further explanation. Can you imagine? Shouldn't a logical proof of God be given at least a paragraph or chapter, if not volumes worth of treatment?
Just a few more criticisms and then I will wrap up this review. The story of Gödel is not chronological and hence is confusing and incomplete as mentioned above. There is very little from Gödel himself (in terms of quotes from his own writings, letters, etc.) The few biographical pieces that are there are sometimes repeated. A biography of three times this length shouldn't be this repetitive. The references are few and inadequate. On page 144, the reader is told to check the references for Tom Ray's account of his experiments (which I intended to pursue) but Ray isn't mentioned in that chapter's references. Indeed, he isn't referred to in any of the chapters' references. Finally, the pictures are all black and white and far too small. Most aren't any bigger than a postage stamp.
On the positive side, this book is a quick read. I will end this review the same way the authors, rather ironically considering its length and shallowness, ended Gödel. "Enough said!"
from the publisher:
Kurt Gödel was an intellectual giant. His "Incompleteness Theorem" turned not only mathematics but also the whole world of science and philosophy on its head. Equally legendary were Gödel's eccentricities, his close friendship with Albert Einstein, and his paranoid fear of germs that eventually led to his death from self-starvation. Now, in the first popular biography of this strange and brilliant thinker, John Casti and Werner DePauli bring the legend to life. After describing his childhood in the Moravian capital of Brno, the authors trace the arc of Gödel's remarkable career, from the famed Vienna Circle, where philosophers and scientists debated notions of truth, to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he lived and worked until his death in 1978. In the process, they shed light on Gödel's contributions to mathematics, philosophy, computer science, artificial intelligence--even cosmology--in an entertaining and accessible way.
John L. Casti , a member of the faculty of both the Santa Fe Institute and the Technical University of Vienna, is one of the most esteemed science writers of our time. He has written numerous acclaimed popular science books, including Mission to Abisko, Five Golden Rules, and The Cambridge Quintet. Werner Depauli is University Assistant and Oberrat at the Institute of Statistics and Computer Science of the University of Vienna. He is the author of several books in German about Gödel and has produced a film on Gödel for German television.