Tuesday, June 12, 2018

On a Jim Holt Kick... and RFI

I’m on a bit of a Jim Holt kick these days, so first a RFI:
I’d enjoy interviewing Jim for my interview series but haven’t found any email contact for him… if anyone has such that they can pass along, email me privately: sheckyr@gmail.com, (or if I follow you on Twitter you could probably DM me there, @sheckyr ).
[p.s... hope folks have read my latest interview with economist Gary Smith a couple days ago.]
In another bit of serendipity, having recently written a post about humor and jokes, I just discovered that Holt previously wrote a small volume ( "Stop Me If You've Heard This”) on that very subject as well.

Meanwhile, I've now finished his volume, "When Einstein Walked with Gödel," and it is easily one of my favorite reads of the last several years; 350 richly, diverse, engaging pages on a fabulous variety of science/philosophy/history/math-related topics.
I’ll pass along one interesting tidbit he only mentions briefly that I was unfamiliar with. It’s called the “Bogdanov affair,” circa 2002, drawing my interest because it’s oft-referred to as a “reverse Sokal hoax” (a hoax against physics, opposite physicist Alan Sokal’s famous hoax against post-modernist analysis). It involves two French twin brothers and their buzzword-laden “work” in theoretical physics.
Here’s the Wikipedia page on it:

It’s a bit involved and so far as I can tell the degree of the brothers’ sincerity/legitimacy has never been completely settled, even lo these many years later (a real hoax or not?), but I trust highly-reputable John Baez’s take on it here:
Especially interesting to read about in light of all the criticism/skepticism of theoretical physics prevalent these days.

And here’s an old BloggingheadsTV end-segment from January 2008 with Holt and John Horgan taking a "quick foray into mathematics." It starts off with Jim espousing the non-Platonist view that mathematics is invented:
[...one small error, when Jim references "Thomas Langlands" of Princeton, I believe he means Robert Langlands of Yale.]

More and more people seem to be espousing the math-is-invented-not-discovered, viewpoint in recent years (though my own guess is that the Platonist view still prevails overall), and I was a little surprised at the confidence with which Holt asserts the non-Platonist stand. Martin Gardner's simple rebuke to the non-Platonists was along the lines of saying that, well before Man existed (let alone any formal study of mathematics), if two dinosaurs were in a field and two more joined them, then there were now four dinosaurs in the field -- i.e., quantity or number, as well as addition, exist whether there is a human mind around to employ such labels or not (mathematics exists apart from human appreciation/use of it). I think he also cited the example of predicting Halley's comet's appearance decades in advance (or for that matter planetary movements) as a case of math being inherent (and discoverable) in physical laws, whether or not the "laws" are discovered or known.

I'm skeptical of binary, either-or questions to begin with, so the easy solution seems to me to just say some parts of math are discovered and other parts are created; these days mathematics is a very large, wide-ranging field so I'm surprised more people don't simply opt for such a middle-ground. And I wonder if Holt (or non-Platonists in general) believe that if an alien civilization, a million years more advanced than us, visits us one day, they might find our mathematics completely foreign and unintelligible to them (or would there not be many shared elements?). Further, if math is created, then does that not mean that all of physics (so firmly based upon math) must likewise be created, not discovered, and is that plausible as well? And chemistry is based on physics, and biology based on chemistry etc... i.e. is all of "science" just a human mental construction with no firm coupling to "reality"? If so, then WHAT? Is all of knowledge or existence just some sort of grand tautology? (Holt, at one point, cites Bertrand Russell's query of whether all of math is just tautology.) Or maybe this is all nothing more than semantic quibbling over the fuzzy meanings of "discovered" and "created."

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