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Mathematician Kurt Godel, atomic physicist Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein are among the cast of Casti's new novel (after The Cambridge Quintet), a speculative recreation of the debates that took place in the late 1940s at the Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study. The book, which Casti describes as "scientific fiction," is composed mainly of dialogues between the scientists and mathematicians as they ponder the limits of human logic. These discussions aren't entirely abstract; the professors consider the philosophical and psychological implications of nascent computer technology and the atom bomb, among other inventions. Casti laces the book with descriptions of the IAS, the "platonic heaven" of the title, where the best thinkers of their day are able to do their research and talk to one another free from the other responsibilities of academia. T.S. Eliot, the lone poet spending "a term in Princeton" with the scientists, makes a cameo appearance during one of the afternoon teas at which the researchers gather daily. Casti knows his subject and explains it lucidly; the discussions of physics and math are reasonably accessible and quite engaging. But his attempts to make the scientists into characters rely on stiff, cliched descriptions ("Eliot's poetic soul cringed at this interchange"), and the conversational framework is stilted: "Oppenheimer turned to Eliot and asked in a resonant directorial voice, `Well, Tom, I see that Pauli and Weyl haven't yet managed to reconcile themselves in the realm of physics. What do you think about the aesthetic differences between the poet and the physicist?'" The book doesn't quite succeed as fiction, but readers eager to explore the principles of theoretical physics and math may appreciate Casti's reconstruction of the great debates.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Imagine a physics textbook in which the great scientists suddenly come to life as unpredictable characters sauntering down shady streets as they debate cosmic theories. Just as he did in The Cambridge Quintet (1998), Casti blends real science with compelling fiction. In this narrative--set in 1948 at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study (IAS)--Einstein pits his formidable mind against the disquieting paradoxes of quantum physics, while Kurt Godel contemplates the possibilities for time travel in a relativistic universe. But when a restless John van Neumann begins to lobby for funds to launch a computer project of unprecedented scope, IAS conservatives bristle, resentful of the irreverent genius who would pollute their realm of pure theory with an electronic machine. Most readers will finally care less about van Neumann's maneuverings than about the ongoing dialogue between intellectual pioneers pondering the expanding horizons and eventual limits of human science. Thanks to Casti's daring imagination, we are allowed to intrude on the exclusive world of IAS and listen in on the profound conversations of its brightest luminaries. Bryce Christensen
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