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A World Without Timeby Palle Yourgrau
Synopses & Reviews
In 1942, the logician Kurt Godel suffered a major episode of depression that required a stay at a mental hospital. Upon his release, Albert Einstein, his colleague at the Institute for Advanced Studies, took Godel under his wing and, to cheer him up, gave him "relativity lessons." The two became close friends; they walked to and from their offices at the Institute every day, exchanging ideas about science, philosophy, politics and the lost world of German science in which both men had grown up. By 1949, Godel had produced a remarkable proof: In any universe described by the Theory of Relativity, time cannot exist. Einstein endorsed this result, reluctantly, since it decisively overthrew the classical world-view to which he was committed. But he could find no way to refute it, and in the half-century since then, neither has anyone else. Even more remarkable than this stunning discovery by two of the greatest intellects of all time, however, was what happened afterward: nothing.
Cosmologists have proceeded with their work as if time were the linear phenomenon familiar to Newton or Galileo (with some allowances for relativistic distortion); philosophers have refused to recognize Godel as an important philosopher of time. While arguing that these failures constitute major scandals of modern intellectual history, author Palle Yourgrau also offers a mitigating explanation. Godel's cosmological findings, he says, are so advanced as to be beyond the ability of modern science to deal with them. But Godel's results show that relativity, too, is in the same category. A World without Time is a sweeping, ambitious book, and yet poignant and intimate: it tells the story of two magnificent minds put on the shelf by the scientific fashions of their day, and attempts to rescue from undeserved obscurity the brilliant work they did together.
"What if time is only an illusion, if it doesn't actually exist? Yourgrau, a Brandeis professor of philosophy, explains that Einstein's general theory of relativity may allow for this possibility, first realized by the great logician Kurt Gdel. Gdel is best known for his incompleteness theorem, one of the most important theorems in mathematical logic since Euclid. In a typically brief paper written for a Festschrift to honor his friend and Princeton neighbor Einstein, Gdel theorized the existence of what have come to be called Gdel universes: rotating universes in which time travel is possible. But if one can travel through time, how can time as we know it exist in these other universes, since the past is always present? And if time doesn't exist in other universes, then it may not exist in ours either. Yourgrau (The Disappearance of Time) writes that Gdel's paper was almost universally ignored, and he claims that since the logician's death, philosophers have gone out of their way to try to denigrate his work in fields other than logic. This book will appeal to fans of Douglas Hofstadter's Gdel, Escher, Bach and to Einstein junkies, and makes a fascinating companion to Rebecca Goldstein's Incompleteness (Forecasts, Dec. 20), but all readers who enjoy a good thought experiment or having basic preconceptions about their world challenged will enjoy this." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Book News Annotation:
For 15 years two men, one made like a rapier, the other looking like a pile of laundry, walked together to their respective homes through the Princeton campus, talking as only consummate academics can. In his last years on earth, Einstein would go to his office just to have these walks home. Perhaps he could see a future in which Gödel, the rapier and the world's greatest logician, would run out of time and leave this planet weighing, by his own choice, only 65 pounds. In their walks Gödel concluded that time, which Einstein showed not to exist on theoretical worlds, did not exist in this one either. Yourgrau (philosophy, Brandeis U.) explains the time they had together, and how Gödel's resulting paper on this crucial aspect of relativity has fared amongst physicists and philosophers.
Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
It is a widely known but little considered fact that Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel were best friends for the last decade and a half of Einstein's life. The two walked home together from Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study every day; they shared ideas about physics, philosophy, politics, and the lost world of German science in which they had grown up. By 1949, Gödel had produced a remarkable proof: In any universe described by the Theory of Relativity, time cannot exist. Einstein endorsed this result-reluctantly, since it decisively overthrew the classical world-view to which he was committed. But he could find no way to refute it, and in the half-century since then, neither has anyone else. Even more remarkable than this stunning discovery, however, was what happened afterward: nothing. Cosmologists and philosophers alike have proceeded with their work as if Gödel's proof never existed -one of the greatest scandals of modern intellectual history. A World Without Time is a sweeping, ambitious book, and yet poignant and intimate. It tells the story of two magnificent minds put on the shelf by the scientific fashions of their day, and attempts to rescue from undeserved obscurity the brilliant work they did together.
About the Author
Palle Yourgrau is a Professor of Philosophy at Brandeis University. His 1999 monograph Gödel Meets Einstein, the only book-length work on Gödel's cosmological ideas, has caused a resurgence of interest among philosophers in Gödel's ideas about time and relativity. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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