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The One True Platonic Heaven: A Scientific Fiction of the Limits of Knowledge [Paperback]

John L. Casti , Joseph Henry Press , National Academy of Sciences
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
Price: £8.99 & FREE Delivery in the UK on orders over £10. Details
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Book Description

28 April 2003
By the author of The Cambridge Quintet, John L. Casti's new book continues the tradition of combining science fact with just the right dose of fiction. Part novel, part science -- wholly informative and entertaining. In the fall of 1933 the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, welcomed its first faculty member, Albert Einstein. With this superstar on the roster, the Institute was able to attract many more of the greatest scholars, scientists, and poets from around the world. It was to be an intellectual haven, a place where the most brilliant minds on the planet, sheltered from the outside world's cares and calamities, could study and collaborate and devote their time to the pure and exclusive pursuit of knowledge. For many of them, it was the "one, true, platonic heaven." Over the years, key figures at the Institute began to question the limits to what science could tell us about the world, pondering the universal secrets it might unlock. Could science be the ultimate source of truth; or are there intrinsic limits, built into the very fabric of the universe, to what we can learn? In the late 1940's and early 1950's, this important question was being asked and pondered upon by some of the Institute's deepest thinkers. Enter the dramatis personae to illuminate the science and the philosophy of the time. Mathematical logician Kurt Godel was the unacknowledged Grant Exalted Ruler of this platonic estate -- but he was a ruler without a scepter as he awaited the inexplicably indefinite postponement of his promotion to full, tenured professor. Also in residence was his colleague, the Hungarian-American polymath, John van Neumann, developer of game theory, the axiomatic foundations of quantum mechanics, and the digital computer -- stymied by the Institute's refusal to sanction his bold proposal to actually build a computer. One of Godel's closest friends figures large in this story: Albert Einstein, by common consensus the greatest physicist the 20th century had ever known. And, of course, the director the Institute, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, must by necessity be key to any story that focuses in on this time and place. Author Casti elegantly sets the stage and then masterfully directs this impressive cast of characters--with able assists by many "minor-character" icons like T. S. Eliot, Wolfgang Pauli, Freeman Dyson, and David Bohm, to tell a story of science, history, and ideas. As we watch events unfold (some of which are documented fact while others are creatively imagined fiction), we are witness to the discussions and deliberations of this august group...privy to wide-ranging conversations on thinking machines, quantum logic, biology as physics, weather forecasting, the structure of economic systems, the distinction between mathematics and natural science, the structure of the universe, and the powers of the human mind -- all centered around the question of the limits to scientific knowledge. Imaginatively conceived and artfully executed, The One True Platonic Heaven is an accessible and intriguing presentation of some of the deepest scientific and philosophical ideas of the 20th century.

Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Henry (Joseph) Press (28 April 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0309095107
  • ISBN-13: 978-0309095105
  • Product Dimensions: 19 x 13 x 1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 974,997 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intellectual heaven on earth... 15 July 2004
By Kurt Messick HALL OF FAME
Format:Hardcover
What Casti means by the title 'One True Platonic Heaven' is polyvalent - in the first place, it is frequent reference to the IAS, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, a think-tank founded for the advancement of pure science. So adamant are some that it remain 'pure' rather than 'applied', that when one of their number proposes to bring a computing device in, there is controversy among the members, that this would end up being an 'application', and implicit slippery slopes abound.
Of course, the timing of this novel (and it is a novel) is the early twentieth century - the prologue begins with snapshots of various points prior to World War II, key moments in the development of mathematics and scientific epistemology. The core of the book takes place just after the war, in Princeton, as the earliest computing machines (ENIAC, anyone?) have been developed by the military, and are now being further developed for both civilian and military applications.
The cast of characters Casti draws is impressive - the core group includes Einstein, Godel, von Neumann, Oppenheimer, and Strauss; other 'also starring' roles go to T.S. Eliot (Oppenheimer was a poet on the side, and the idea of the limits of knowledge is a multi-disciplinary task), Goldstein, Weyl, Pauli, Bohm and others. Casti draws these people together in informal and formal settings, preferring the former to the later - walking to campus and having discussions, gatherings at tea-time, etc. Casti injects the human element into the mix (we are told of Godel's eccentricity such that he starved himself to death no fewer than three times, for example) - his descriptions help the narrative flow of the novel, but can be distracting for those who wish to get directly to the heart of the arguments.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unique and enjoyable work 28 Aug 2003
By magellan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Casti's unique blending of science and fiction is a delight to read. The story takes place against the backdrop of the early years of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study--a true citadel of genius if there ever was one. Characters like Einstein, Kurt Godel, J. Robert Oppenheimer (who was its director), Hermann Weyl, Wolfgang Pauli, and John Wheeler (not all of whom were at the institute) come to life as they discuss and debate the great scientific issues of the day. Much of the story transpires over conversations in the halls of the institute, or at the gregarious and likeable von Neumann's cocktail parties.
Some of the best conversations are between Godel and Einstein as they stroll along the streets of Princeton. The gnomish and reclusive Godel was one of the few people who could surprise Einstein, and one time Godel (who was most famous as a logician) said he'd just happened to be playing around with Einstein's relativistic field equations and had found a solution that had escaped Einstein that suggested that time didn't exist, or at least there was no meaning to our ideas of temporal succession. In this solution, closed, relativistic, timelike lines existed in space, and one could go forward in time as well as backward. Einstein is stunned and impressed by this little bombshell that Godel had dropped on him--yet another example of Godel's amazing genius, and why he was known as the "Grand Exalted Ruler" of the "One True, Platonic Heaven"--the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. And that's not to mention the fact that Godel's famous incompleteness proof threw into doubt the great Hilbert's entire program of completeness in mathematics which had been widely supported. This is just one of the many fascinating discussions which Casti skillfully uses to explore and explain very clearly and concisely not only some esoteric science but also such questions as the ethics of science, aesthetics in science, Einstein's controversial and infamous stand on quantum indeterminacy, and the scientist's place in society.
Casti also manages to inject some drama into the story with the controversy surrounding von Neumann's proposal for building the first big electronic computer at the Institute--a proposal which many of the Institute's professors opposed because it was against the Institute's stated mission of doing only pure and not applied research. Through some clever politicking and persuasion, Oppenheimer manages to get the project approved, although it was the only such engineering project ever undertaken at the Institute, and nothing else like it was ever done again. Another side story involves Godel's elevation to full professor which had been delayed because of some of his personal quirks and otherworldly nature--the job of full professor also involving not just thinking about your subject all day long but also requiring spending considerable time in various administrative duties which the other professors thought Godel unsuited for. But Oppenheimer points out that how can any of them be full professors if Godel, possibly the greatest of them all, is not? Again, through his usual skillful persuasion, Oppenheimer manages to get it approved. All in all this is a fine little book (it's only 150 pages long) blending both science and fiction in a very readable and entertaining way.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intellectual heaven on earth 11 July 2004
By FrKurt Messick - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
What Casti means by the title 'One True Platonic Heaven' is polyvalent - in the first place, it is frequent reference to the IAS, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, a think-tank founded for the advancement of pure science. So adamant are some that it remain 'pure' rather than 'applied', that when one of their number proposes to bring a computing device in, there is controversy among the members, that this would end up being an 'application', and implicit slippery slopes abound.
Of course, the timing of this novel (and it is a novel) is the early twentieth century - the prologue begins with snapshots of various points prior to World War II, key moments in the development of mathematics and scientific epistemology. The core of the book takes place just after the war, in Princeton, as the earliest computing machines (ENIAC, anyone?) have been developed by the military, and are now being further developed for both civilian and military applications.
The cast of characters Casti draws is impressive - the core group includes Einstein, Godel, von Neumann, Oppenheimer, and Strauss; other 'also starring' roles go to T.S. Eliot (Oppenheimer was a poet on the side, and the idea of the limits of knowledge is a multi-disciplinary task), Goldstein, Weyl, Pauli, Bohm and others. Casti draws these people together in informal and formal settings, preferring the former to the later - walking to campus and having discussions, gatherings at tea-time, etc. Casti injects the human element into the mix (we are told of Godel's eccentricity such that he starved himself to death no fewer than three times, for example) - his descriptions help the narrative flow of the novel, but can be distracting for those who wish to get directly to the heart of the arguments.
The book is rather thin - 160 pages of text, small-format pages at that - and while the subject matter is rather high end intellectual thinking, in fact the substance of the book probably only consists of about a third of those pages; the rest is psychological tid-bits about the characters (enlightening from an historical standpoint, and pointing the way in some respects as to why people thought the ways they did) or narrative linkages, so it can be read fairly quickly (unlike a mathematics textbook, which would more likely take a longer time). There are no equations here - Casti is assuming some knowledge of mathematics in general theory; Casti also assumes a grounding in physics and in philosophy. Without some background in at least one of these disciplines, the reader is likely to be lost at several points.
It is fascinating to realise that the limitations on knowledge discussed in this hypothetical construct by such exalted twentieth-century thinkers contain elements still on the table for discussion today. This is where another meaning of the 'one true Platonic heaven' comes into play - it is a theoretical construct, akin to the Forms, without direct substance, yet reflected in important ways in 'the real world'.
A bit more philosophy might not go astray here - elements such as Husserl, Whitehead, Ayer and others who have examined the crisis of science and scientific knowledge might have been drawn into the conversation (it would have required a bit more fictional stretching, but cold have proved worthwhile). However, it is remains a fascinating and fairly accessible means for exploring some of the key underlying ideas in modern scientific, mathematical, and epistemological thinking.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Casti does it again! 24 Jun 2004
By A. Jogalekar - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
John Casti has emerged as the most articulate, humorous and sophisticated science writer in the world in recent years. Writing on topics as diverse as Artificial Intelligence, Mathematics and Complexity, Biology and Genetics and the Philosophy of Science, he now has taken the boldest step as of yet, an effort to debate the limits of knowledge itself. As in his earlier book, The Cambridge Quintet, Casti weaves together a fictional set of discussions between famous scientists set in the 1940s at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, the "one, true, platonic heaven", a place where the most austere and profound theorists in the world could come and think. Participants include such luminaries as J. Robert Oppenheimer (who was director of the institute then), Kurt Godel, Freeman Dyson, John von Neumann and the great Einstein himself. The discussions take place at diverse locations and times; in the common room during tea time, between Einstein and Godel during walks from the institute to the house, and at a party hosted by the great mathematician John von Neumann. The topic? What are the limits of our knowledge, in Physics, in Mathematics, in Social Sciences, in Philosophy. At the background are minor discussions of matters involving whether Kurt Godel should be made a permanent member, and whether von Neumann should build the first ever computer in the Institute. There's also a cameo appearance by T. S. Eliot, who was an invited member for a year. I have to admit that this book is not as profound as The Cambridge Quintet. However, Casti has an uncanny knack for constructing life size figures of famous scientists, and making the discussions relevant, articulate and accessible. There are of course, a few cliche lines coming from each of the scientists, but then since the discussions are fictional, who knows what all of them would have actually said. In the end, there is no concrete conclusion, as there cannot be any about such a profound topic. But I closed the book feeling sure only about one thing, that we must continue the quest for the limits of knowledge, even if we don't know what they are at this moment. This is surely an example where, for once, the journey is infinitely more interesting and important than the destination.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fun Read 9 Mar 2010
By C. Vita - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I loved this book! It was like eating peanuts, I couldn't stop once I started! It was full of fascinating and intelligent discussions on the nature and limits of scientific and mathematical knowledge that were just plain fun to read about! Also interesting was the character and place development that provided the context for the meetings and discussions of the remarkable men we meet in the book.
0 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars As dry and tasteless as year old soda crackers 6 Sep 2008
By Roger Bagula - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book reminds me of a Brit after WWII telling how they won the war...
There seems to be a delusion here about American/ Princeton preminence
in science and mathematics. Casti is very much a spokesman for the past,
not the future. There is really no real science fiction here: it is embarrassing to sci fi to have this called by that name. A lot of the ideas he talks about are out of place at this time ( they were late 50's early 60's ideas). His tone is that of a lecturer who doesn't care if he puts the audience to asleep. I've read several of his other books and none was as arrogant or elitist as this one. He just has failed to read about the lives of the main characters or to understand them? They are not the people I have read about in a number of biographies.
I think the worst thing this book does is suck the life out of the ideas that it tries to discuss?
He just gets it wrong in so many ways.
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