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27 November 2008 / April

In which a comparison is not avoided

I should just review a book by Douglas Hofstadter, shouldn’t I.  Not GEB, because that would be like a Christian reviewing the Bible*, but something, so when I inevitably compare every writer of nonfiction to Hofstadter, you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about.

But there’s a better way to achieve that goal.  JUST READ GEB, GODDAMMIT.

To rescue this from the Depths of Digression (hey, at least I didn’t start with sandwiches), I shall now morph smoothly and imperceptibly into telling you how Martin Gardner was a columnist for Scientific American before Hofstadter took over in 1981.  (Look, see how relevant that is!  If only I would stop ruining it by pointing it out parenthetically!)  And I think Hofstadter put it best in Metamagical Themas when he pointed out, “Rather than filling the same role as Martin had, I would merely occupy the same physical spot in the magazine.”

Would I had remembered that distinction when I started reading The Night Is Large, a collection of essays by Gardner

That was my first error.  My second was confusing admiration with similarity when reading Hofstadter’s laudation on the cover– “Martin Gardner is one of the great intellects produced in this country in this century.”  Though similarity seems to imply admiration (I’m thinking of “imitation is the highest form of flattery”), the converse is not true.  And my third blunder was failing to note that most of the essays in The Night Is Large are not in fact from his “Mathematical Games” column, but rather culled from his other books and published pieces.  So they were rather less, ah, mathematical than I had expected.

About 5% of you are weeping bitter tears of disappointment because you thought I was reviewing another math book.  The rest of you are just relieved.

But fear not, 5%!  The Night Is Large does have a section on math.  It has essays on all sorts of wondrous things, in fact, from string theory to fractal music to Klingon (yes, really) to “everything” (again, yes, really).  The important thing to note, however, is that the section on philosophy is the longest, and the other essays have philosophical undertones at varying levels of invasiveness.  This is probably a result of the particular pieces chosen for this collection, but the fact remains: in this book, Gardner is not the “mathematics and science writer” Wikipedia defines him as.  He is a philosopher.

I hope my weird obsession about comparing Gardner with Hofstadter hasn’t made me seem in any way disdainful of philosophy or literature or the many non-mathematical topics Gardner writes about.  (Because Hofstadter is something of a philosopher too…)

For a reader who knows embarrassingly little of the technicalities and terminology of philosophy, Gardner is an incredibly clear and convincing philosopher.  He takes something of a cop-out stance on free will but defends it eloquently.  Though he says some things about atheists with which I disagree vehemently, his justification for his belief in God is the only one around that I could imagine myself getting behind.  Though he says some things about artificial intelligence with which I disagree somewhat less vehemently, he might plausibly have persuaded me if Hofstadter hadn’t gotten there first.  And he spends many pages arguing that the universe actually exists, which apparently is an issue that needs to be considered carefully.

All in all, you may or may not criticize his ideas, but it would be difficult to criticize the way in which he presents them.

He also writes with likable wit, whether dealing with these deep topics or less weighty ones.  One of my favorite chapters is his story about a mathematician at a tea party, charming the ladies with his little puzzles and bad puns.  Socially inept nerds, take note!  (“What happened to that fifth cube?”  “Perhaps it slid off into a higher dimension.”  “Are you pulling my leg?”  “I wish I were.”)

But my favorite quote is in his essay on “nothing,” when he tells us, “One afternoon in a rural section of North Dakota, where the wind blew constantly, there was a sudden cessation of wind.  All the chickens fell over.”

Take a minute and imagine that.  You are laughing.  I know you are.

* Try not to take this simile too literally.  Please.



Leave a Comment
  1. Rafael Lizarralde / Dec 2 2008 10:48 pm

    … you can’t just say you agree/disagree without saying what the actual ideas are! D:
    What did he say about free will, atheists/god, and artificial intelligence?

  2. April / Dec 2 2008 11:13 pm

    … I can’t just tell you! You have to read the book!

  3. Rafael Lizarralde / Dec 13 2008 11:16 pm

    I have difficulty reading long texts in which there are only some parts that interest me. That’s why there are people like you who can distill the relevant parts into some manageable form 😀

  4. April / Dec 14 2008 10:02 pm

    I do not condone laziness towards reading. 😉

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