Reflections

When in 2002 Raymond Smullyan published his book Some Interesting Memories, this was somewhat of an autobiography. That means that the backbone consists of some events from Smullyan's prolific career, but that it is more a collection of anecdotes, jokes, and a lot of mathematical-logic puzzles. In 2014, there was Four Lives: A Celebration of Raymond Smullyan edited by Jason Rosenhouse, a tribute to his life-time achievements as a magician, a mathematician, a musician, and a philosopher. It consisted of salutations from his friends, some essays related to his work, and a round-up of the best of his writings. But it seems that there are still some loose ends, which are collected in this book, although there is a lot of recycling too.

He starts by telling that now in 2015, he is 95 and lives in the Catskill Mountains in a house designed by his wife Blanche who passed away in 2006 at the age of 100. And then he engages in the story of his life in the conventional way: I was born in 1919 from a Russian father and a Belgian mother,... But Smullyan is a born entertainer. Every event has some connection to an anecdote, which reminds him of a joke, that is like another story that happened to somebody else, which triggers more jokes,... You can imagine him sitting in an easy chair with a growing company of listeners flocking around him, while he is entertaining them. If it were not for an unusual overdose of logic puzzles, it almost reads like the written text of the performance of a stand-up comedian. But a stand-up comedy session is usually relatively short. So, clearly one cannot keep this format for over 200 pages without being irritating. Hence there is some variation. Sometimes there are short (fun) poems dedicated to some person. It also has letters and emails from him or addressed to him, some lists of riddles with pun answers (like What philosopher couldn't do things? Immanuel Can't), etc.

There are many detours and deviations from chronology, but the titles of the chapters at least suggest some sequential or logically coherent elements of his life. The first is Early childhood where he turns out to have musical talent and a perfect pitch. He also discovers logical problems because some April 1, his elder brother promises to fool him like he had never done before, but actually never does. Raymond was vigilant all the time, but when nothing had happened at the end of the day he was left in dubio pondering over the question whether he had been fooled or not. His career as a student is a sequence of drop-outs, but he has some preference for mathematics (but doesn't get the best scores) and for music. His research on Gödel's incompleteness theorems in formal systems resulted in a PhD at Princeton supervised by Alonzo Church. He worked as a magician for a while but was pushed to accept teaching positions at several institutions. Besides his academic books on logic and other topics, he published many popular puzzle books, books on retrograde chess problems, and some on Taoism, philosophy, and religion.

One chapter about The Piano Society, later in the book, is longer than the others. This society has a website with biographies of composers and pianists. The latter can make several of their recordings freely available on this website. There is also a discussion forum where sometimes, strangely enough, also jokes and mathematical puzzles are discussed. Perhaps not so strange if you know that Smullyan is a member, and that some of the other members are also mathematicians or are at least interested in the subject. So, a large part of this chapter consists of discussions from this forum.

Smullyan has two characteristic properties. One is that he is incurably immodest. This he considers beyond his control and he meekly accepts it, so that some laudation of his person peeps through in this text. The second one is that he loves women. He admits to have a genetic deviation towards flirting, not seductive, but complimentary flirtation, he urges to add. So in the last chapter he goes over some thankful memories he has for some of the Lovely Ladies he has known.

Although most of the book is fun, entertainment, and puzzles, you also find some shreds of a biography, and some sparks of true logic for a general readership, and that includes explanations of theorems of Gödel and Tarski. Smullyan has some strong opinions music and other things, but one about current textbooks is formulated so avowedly that I can't resist to include it here:

Many of the high school texts used today combine algebra and geometry in a single course, and give the student not the remotest idea of what is meant by a proof! But trying to fight the textbook lobby is about as hopeless as fighting the gun lobby! I really believe that the main cause of the poor education of students today is not the poor quality of the teachers, but the textbooks!

Those who know his previous puzzle books or the books mentioned in the beginning of this review, will find here more in the same style and will recognize many of the recycled jokes, puzzles, and anecdotes. If an anecdote triggers a joke, then the same joke will probably have been triggered by the same or another anecdote in one of his previous books and many of the puzzles rely on the same principles, so they may have appeared in the same or a very similar form before. What is not really elaborated in this book are his chess problems and the philosophical and religious topics. If you are not familiar yet with his previous books, then this is one excellent and very entertaining introduction to a most versatile personality.

Reviewer: 
Adhemar Bultheel
Book details

Another book in the by now probably very familiar Smullyan style. A collection of personal recollections, anecdotes, and jokes, seasoned with many mathematical puzzles sprinkled with some autobiographic notes.

Author:  Publisher: 
Published: 
2015
ISBN: 
978-981-4663-19-9 (pbk)
Price: 
GBP 19.00
Pages: 
224
Categorisation