Holt’s example is plain: Think well, eat well and seek out those who will nourish and challenge you. It’s this conviviality, and a crispness of style, that distinguish him as a popularizer of some very redoubtable mathematics and science. “My ideal is the cocktail-party chat,” he writes in the preface to his new essay collection, “When Einstein Walked with Gödel,” “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). The goal is to enlighten the newcomer while providing a novel twist that will please the expert. And never to bore.”
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 — he dismantles the notion that Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, was the first computer programmer. 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.