In these pieces, plucked from the last 20 years, Holt takes on infinity and the infinitesimal, the illusion of time, the birth of eugenics, the so-called new atheism, smartphones and distraction. It is an elegant history of recent ideas. There are a few historical correctives ... But he generally prefers to perch in the middle of a muddle—say, the string theory wars—and hear evidence from both sides without rushing to adjudication ... Holt is an amphibious kind of writer, so capably slipping from theology to cosmology to poetry, you’re reminded that specialization is a modern invention ... Part of what makes Holt so exciting is his ability to gather these disciplines under his shingle, to make their knottiest questions not only intelligible but enticing, without sacrificing rigor.
I found Holt’s essay on the Riemann hypothesis to be totally charming. In fact, this was my experience for nearly the whole book. In piece after piece, Holt acts as a model host, giving us only the best bits while paring away most difficulties. As he notes in the preface, 'My ideal is the cocktail-party chat: getting across a profound idea in a brisk and amusing way to an interested friend by stripping it down to its essence (perhaps with a few swift pencil strokes on a napkin).' When Einstein Walked with Gödel mostly delivers on this goal. It’s a perfect bedtime book, with each essay providing a luminous devotional on weighty topics, delivered with a light touch ... Jim Holt...cement[s] his reputation as one of the few pop-science practitioners whose primary aim is aesthetic bliss. Beauty and truth are only loosely conjoined ... he reveres abstract ideas but not their human vessels, and part of his originality lies in how he accepts (and amplifies) the distinction. Holt may be an anti-Platonist, but he seems glad to visit the world of ideal forms. So long as he searches these heights for specimens, I’ll be excited to see what he brings back next.
Holt's book is much closer to a series of dispatches about the larger scientific world Einstein and Gödel inhabited ... they all wonderfully achieve Holt's stated goal: 'to enlighten the newcomer while providing a novel twist that will please the expert.' This is considerably more difficult than it sounds, and Holt does a beautifully readable job ... Perhaps to the dismay of his lay readers, 'beautiful' is a word that crops up frequently in these pieces, usually connected with…math ... Even at the hands of an expert popularizer like Holt, that beauty can be elusive, probably for simply biological reasons ... Science writing of the caliber on display in When Einstein Walked with Gödel is a boon in these times of looming scientific illiteracy. Holt makes his recondite subjects seem not only fascinating but fun, humanity's greatest intellectual adventure – and one that badly needs as many adventurers as it can get.