I’ve never been this happy for being tricked. A few weeks ago, when I was at the library I saw a book prominently displaced in the science fiction section. I didn’t have a lot of time and the title and subtitle looked interesting and seemed to be on the kind of topic I would enjoy so I grabbed the book and checked it out. John L. Casti‘s “The one true platonic heaven: a scientific fiction on the limits of knowledge” had plenty of science and a little fiction in it, but I certainly wouldn’t have categorized it as science fiction. It’s more of a speculative fiction.
The set up simple: it follows fictional conversations of some of the greatest minds of the 20th century: John von Naumann (or as known in Hungarian Neumann János), Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Lewis L. Strauss, and a host of other dignitaries. What is common in them that they all worked at point or another at the “Institute for Advanced Study” (IAS), an institute at Princeton dedicated to the pursuit of pure knowledge. What is fictional in the book is that they didn’t necessarily work there at the same time. But it made better dramaturgy to have them all share their minds on the same topics.
The book purports to follow discussion about the limits of knowledge, first theoretical (what the limits could be) and then moral (what they should be). I have to admit it was a challenge to read this book. I read it slowly, making sure that I understood each sentence and paragraph. That was hard work as there was a lot of theory in it. I felt proud of myself that I managed to grasp the concepts and, I believe, the meaning of everything that was said. They contained lots of high level abstractions. However when I wanted to summarize for myself a chapter’s message, or what an individual character represented I was in trouble as that required an even higher level of abstraction, which I just couldn’t devote enough time during my regular days. If I’d be still at school and wouldn’t have to work, take care of family and myriads of other things I think I could have done that. But with the time limits and distractions of my personal pursuit of pure knowledge I couldn’t. Nevertheless I am happy that moves those brain muscles that haven’t worked much since highschool, those that do high level math.
On a lower level, the plot revolves around two topics. Should the IAS change Gödel’s status from a member to a professor and should the IAS allow and support Neumann to build a computer. These are the rallying points that the scientists and administration converse about that are easier to follow. Another nice digestible and enjoyable part of the book is the physical and mental description of the main characters. Reading that increased my knowledge of popular science, for which I am grateful. I also have now a sense of what each of them contributed to science. This is why I am happy despite being tricked into reading this book by the library’s miscategorization.