by Stephen Budiansky

Gödel proved the completeness of first-order logic in his 1929 doctoral dissertation, handing it in to a surprised supervisor. Little more than a year later, at an August meeting in Vienna’s Café Reichstrat, he showed that first-order logic was undecidable — that some statements may be true but impossible to prove or disprove in finite time. These results are the foundation of computer science and delineate the computing world we know, but though Gödel sometimes wrote of “machines” as a metaphor for the mechanism of proof, he was not, then or later, much involved with the idea of computers. He was trying to establish the boundaries of what mathematics could do.

He was a ghastly lecturer, a poor teacher, and he chose his wife poorly. The rest of his career was fairly unproductive. Yet he was Einstein’s closest friend at Princeton, and the leaders of the Institute For Advanced Study worked hard to keep in on the staff. It’s an intriguing story, and Budiansky draws it well.

by Denise Schmandt-Besserat

About 3000 BCE, a sheep-owner (or perhaps the owner’s accountant) in the neighborhood of Uruk got tired of keeping track of large numbers of sheep by making large numbers of marks, each meaning either “a sheep” or “a flock of (10) sheep”. Instead, he borrowed a symbol used to represent a big measure of grain — 60 bags full — and put it before the symbol for a sheep. That afternoon, this fellow invented abstract numbers, and also invented the notation that would eventually be the writing we know. (Other people invented writing in China and in Mesoamerica; it's possible there were even earlier scripts that didn’t catch on.)

by Felicity Cloake

A British food writer takes a bicycle/train trek across France, punctuated by 25 classic (if not very imaginative) dishes, plus plenty of croissants. A lovely tribute to travel: you may not get the best onion soup in the world, but if you try, you can find an onion soup that is pretty damn good.

Jun 23 16 2023


by Robert A. Caro

A quick Wellfleet rereading of this fascinating memoir, partly preparation for viewing “Turn Every Page” (edited by my cousin Molly), but mostly because I’m trying to find a better framework for a short book, which is perhaps a pair of short books, exploring what computer science might be if the sort of research that most interests me were near the center, and not an obscure, unfashionable backwater.

by Emma Cline

Alex, who is 22, is a working girl with a graphic designer, social media strategy, and a foreboding sense that business is not doing well. In fact, she’s executing an exit strategy, living with a civilian investment manager with whom she gets along reasonably well. A mild argument, a bit of irritation, a dented bumper make her unwelcome in her boyfriend’s Long Island summer house, and his personal assistant is told to put Alex on the train back to the city.

Alex doesn’t want to go back to the city, where her roommates have surely changed the locks. She has $400 in the bank, and absolute confidence that this fight can be patched up at her boyfriend’s Labor Day party, just 5 days away. Can she stay amongst the dunes and daiquiris for five days?

by Arkady Martine

A second brilliant novel, following the wonderful A Memory Called Empire and, like its predecessor, a Hugo winner. Three Seagrass is now a senior functionary in the Ministry of Information when a request arrives from The Fleet for a special diplomat to help cope with a frightening alien incursion. Bored, Three Seagrass appoints herself, and sets off to pick up the barbarian diplomat Mahit Dzmare, whom she had served as cultural liaison, en route. The problem is that the aliens appear to have no interest in talking to humans, and seem not to comprehend that “talking” is a thing. Meanwhile, the fleet’s internal politics are simmering.

Absolutely wonderful.