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-- E.O. Wilson

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Monday, October 19, 2009

"The Jinn From Hyperspace"

....Essayist Extraordinaire

"The Jinn From Hyperspace" -- Martin Gardner

Regular readers here know I'm a big Martin Gardner fan, especially of his essays. Shortly ago I noted that he has a new book out, but when a local bookstore didn't have it in stock yet, I proceeded to buy his last volume instead which I'd never read: "The Jinn From Hyperspace" (title taken from one of the included essays; unfortunately a number of Gardner books have crummy titles!). It is another delicious, diverse compendium of his pieces previously published elsewhere; and another "A" rating from me (although if you don't like the 'essay' genre, and want books with a beginning, middle, and end, this disjointed volume may not suit you).

The first half of the book centers around a range of science and math topics, while the second half covers a number of diverse writers who are favorites of Gardner. A few chapter highlights:

Chapters 1 and 2 are about False Memory Syndrome, and some of the people whose lives have been devastated by this one-time pop science fad of retrieving memories of abuse from one's childhood or from children themselves using various 'therapeutic' techniques. Gardner's disdain for the matter, which he feels is totally discredited, and for those who practice it, nearly jumps off the page.

The next two chapters are brief positive reviews of 2 books by brilliant, cutting-edge British mathematician/physicist Roger Penrose, with whom Gardner shares a great many viewpoints.

Chapter 7 reviews the mind-boggling Banach-Tarski geometry paradox which delves into the baffling world of infinity, understandable (if at all) only in abstract terms, and not in terms of routine human logic.
Chapter 9 is a defense
(in the course of a book review) of "Platonic realism," which presupposes that mathematical concepts are in some sense a real part of the physical universe, versus just being an abstract concoction of the human mind; the latter view is held by a surprising (even if minority) number of distinguished mathematicians, who oddly would argue that essentially mathematics is not 'real.'
Chapter 12 all-too-briefly addresses Newcomb's Paradox, one of the most famous and hotly-debated conundrums in all of logic/philosophy (dealing with prediction/causation).
Chapter 15 reviews a fascinating-sounding novel, "Popco" by Scarlett Thomas, that interweaves a significant amount of recreational mathematics into the plot.
Chapter 18 is a review of Lee Smolin's "The Trouble With Physics," which argues in part that 'string theory' ain't all it's cracked up to be; and indeed more and more physicists are leaning that way recently, though the verdict is still out.

Chapter 19 is another favorite of mine as Gardner reviews Douglas Hofstadter's "I Am a Strange Loop." Both Gardner and I admire Hofstadter's creativity greatly, but both he and I think this volume falls short (I think it's one of the weakest of all Hofstadter's output, even though the focus on 'self-reference' and recursion feels right, but seems mishandled). And I agree with Gardner that Hofstadter's "strong AI (artificial intelligence)" position, that there is no such thing as "consciousness" or "free will" (the brain viewed instead as essentially a machine that will eventually be duplicated by computers), is wrong-headed. I've long been baffled by Hofstadter's viewpoint in this regard and his close association with the similar-thinking Daniel Dennett (personally, I think Dennett over-rated as a philosopher... or maybe I just think all philosophers over-rated, whereas Hofstadter, a cognitive and computer scientist, regularly produces thought-provoking, mind-expanding reflections on his own, just less-so in this volume).
Unlike Hofstadter, Gardner, by the way, is a "Mysterian," who believes that computers (as we currently know them) can never acquire the trait of "consciousness."

Moving on, Gardner next confesses his love for the writing of G. K. Chesterton of all folks, in a chapter touching upon several of the British writer's works.
The book ends with several chapters devoted to L. Frank Baum ("Wizard of Oz" fame), followed by chapters on various Lewis Carroll works.
If there is another person on the planet who happens to be ensconced by the same disparate set of writers that so enthrall Gardner (he's also a huge fan of Miguel de Unamuno) I'd be curious who it is! These chapters on various writers are made interesting by Gardner's sheer passion for his subject matter, although the science/math/logic essays will always be my preferred pieces.

Like all of Gardner's essay collections one can hardly guess what topics are up ahead when one dives into one these volumes. Gardner's mind is so fertile he moves easily from science to math and logic to philosophy to psychology or pop culture or literature, and anywhere in-between. Whether you agree or disagree with the positions he takes, it will be hard to argue with the deftness and consistency of his thought, and the breadth of his erudition is simply astounding.

When Albert Einstein died there was much interest in studying his dissected brain to try and understand what produced his genius. To be honest (and not meaning to be too morbid about it here) I think studying Gardner's remarkable polymath brain might one day be of even greater interest, were that feasible. In the meantime, this coming Wednesday, he celebrates his 95th birthday!!

ADDENDUM: In a stroke of good timing the NY Times just published a nice piece on Mr. Gardner today HERE.
(And I love this quote from the article: “Many have tried to emulate him; no one has succeeded,” says Ronald Graham, a mathematician at the University of California, San Diego. “Martin has turned thousands of children into mathematicians, and thousands of mathematicians into children.”)

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