by Mario Livio
Simon & Schuster
Review by Maria Bustillos
THIS BOOK IS ABSOLUTELY DIVINE
There are two kinds of popular books about science and mathematics. First we have those written by journalists, who interview scientists and mathematicians with a view to decocting their remarks into a palatable form for laypersons. In this class we may place such writers as Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Bryson. Far more valuable, though, are the popular books written by scientists and mathematicians themselves: those generous souls who have descended from their lofty environs (or their baskets near the ceiling, if you go in for Aristophanes) to clarify and synthesize the really abstruse stuff for those of us laboring in other fields.
You might suppose that highly-placed, even Nobel Prize-winning scientists are way too busy and important to bother writing such books, but you'd be quite wrong. There is a deep and rich literature here that many non-scientists don't even realize exists. That Medawar, Ramachandran, Oliver Sacks and so many others with the capacity to comprehend the most difficult material in the finest detail have taken the trouble to create such readily accessible and beautifully written books is very mind-blowing indeed. Mario Livio, an astrophysicist connected with the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute* vaults to the tippity-top of this august group of mankind's benefactors with Is God a Mathematician?, which surpasses the wonders of even his earlier masterpiece, The Golden Ratio, in rendering complex ideas and questions radiantly intelligible, and in the easiest, friendliest, most elegant style you can imagine. Dr. Livio's mind is like a magical cocktail shaker, into which you can pop the most difficult stuff from set theory to quantum mechanics, and out pours a lovely, mirth-provoking, wonderful elixir of pure understanding.
Maybe I found it such a blissfully pleasurable ride because I have a decent grounding in Greek philosophy, but dang. All this stuff I'd wanted to understand, such as, what is Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem really, and what are the practical applications of special relativity, and what IS non-Euclidean geometry exactly, and how come it was such a big deal when it was first "discovered"--or was it "invented"? The answers are available in this book, and accessible, and it all slides right down in a matter of 250 pages or so.
Basically, the book takes the form of a history of mathematics. There are separate passages dedicated to Archimedes, to Descartes, to Newton and Gauss; all these are described with the most exquisite sensitivity and grace, not only with regard to their contributions to the advancement of human knowledge, but to their lives as men, to their circumstances and their diverse places in the human story.
And this book is packed with loads of comedy! "You cannot repair the Hoover Dam with chewing gum," Livio dorkily proclaims at one point, in the middle of a discussion about logic and the structure of language. He even finds time to squeeze in a hilarious anecdote about Gödel's appointment with the then-equivalent of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (with a totally exasperated Einstein as his minder.)
Thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyable. A brilliant achievement that no other review I have read even begins to appreciate clearly, despite the fact that the back cover blurb is from Sir Michael Atiyah (recipient of the Fields Medal, 1966, and the Abel Prize, 2004.)
Please, just read this wonderful book.
p.s.: Just for the record, I think that Dr. Livio is a closet Platonist, and I have always thought so.
*is there another type of telescope besides a space telescope? Whatever.