Alfred Tarski, one of the greatest logicians of all time, is widely thought of as 'the man who defined truth'. His mathematical work on the concepts of truth and logical consequence are cornerstones of modern logic, influencing developments in philosophy, linguistics and computer science. Tarski was a charismatic teacher and zealous promoter of his view of logic as the foundation of all rational thought, a bon-vivant and a womanizer, who played the 'great man' to the hilt. Born in Warsaw in 1901 to Jewish parents, he changed his name and converted to Catholicism, but was never able to obtain a professorship in his home country. A fortuitous trip to the United States at the outbreak of war saved his life and turned his career around, even while it separated him from his family for years. By the war's end he was established as a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. There Tarski built an empire in logic and methodology that attracted students and distinguished researchers from all over the world. From the cafes of Warsaw and Vienna to the mountains and deserts of California, this first full length biography places Tarski in the social, intellectual and historical context of his times and presents a frank, vivid picture of a personally and professionally passionate man, interlaced with an account of his major scientific achievements. ... Read more
Customer Reviews (14)
A "rigorous" biography that demonstrates that "...also very famous people can have their human defects."
John V. KaravitisI'm almost tempted not to bother writing a review of this biography, I think that a prior reviewer, Mark Robinson, did an admirable job of identifying the inherent contradiction that was the life of Alfred Tarski.Tarski was, as Leon Henkin stated at Tarski's memorial service in Berkeley, "proud, penetrating, persistent, powerful, passionate".Tarski pursued his chosen field of study, logic, with drive and focus, and he did the same with other aspects of his life:climbing mountains and chasing after female students.But reading through this exhaustingly detailed tome made me realize that Tarski was, for all his genius, a deeply flawed individual.John V. KaravitisI'm not sure if people with these character flaws are drawn to academia, or if academia makes people arrogant and out of touch with reality, or if it's a little bit of both.Tarski was a genius, and he took great care to make sure that his approach to the study of logic was full of rigor.Tarski took great pains to proselytize logic around the world, to nurture its growth and make sure that there would be "successors" who would continue his work.But on the other hand, he routinely cheated on his wife (his son Jan felt humiliated by this), typically with female graduate students for whose academic career he was responsible. Today, Tarski and UC Berkeley would have been sued for sexual harassment, and Tarski's career ended for such behavior. Tarski was also overbearing and callous in his dealings with people, especially with those closest to him.As John Corcoran noted:"He was like a Greek God...exasperating... and he was such a glory hound it was embarrassing."It's tough to reconcile these two contradictory aspects of the character of Tarski.Maybe, as has been proposed, when you're living in the "formal world" of logic, something has to "give" in the other areas of one's life.If that's the case, I John V. Karavitis pity Tarski, as I do Montague (who died under mysterious circumstances) and Godel (who died because he literally forgot to eat!).Overall this biography is very well detailed, as noted by the voluminous Notes and Bibliography sections.But it went into such great detail that one becomes bogged down, easily losing sight of the main themes of Tarski's life.The authors, a former student of Tarski's and his spouse, also include several chapters called "Interludes", in which they try to explain certain mathematical ideas that Tarski worked on.Admirable, but unless you have a background in mathematics or logic, almost impossible to follow.Overall, a decent effort, and yes, someone has put together "the definitive" biography of Tarski.But it could have been done better, with way fewer pages, and with an eye to giving us a clearer overall picture of this very complicated man.Quality over quantity, even when you're aiming for "rigor"!John V. Karavitis
The most interesting biography of a mathematician that I have ever read
This book demolishes absurd myths about mathematicians, that they are dull in personality, possess mechanistic minds and exhibit little in the manner of emotion. Alfred Tarski was one of the greatest mathematical minds of the twentieth century and in many ways he was also a demanding scoundrel. He openly had extra-marital affairs, even to the point where he would bring the women home to meet his wife Maria. She had to have been one of the most tolerant and understanding of souls. When Maria finally left him, it had as much to do with his domestic demands as to his sexual (mis)adventures.
Not only was Tarski fortunate in his choice of mate, he was also very lucky to have lived when he did. In the modern academic world, his constant sexual advances to his female students would have gotten him fired very quickly, which brings up another irony. In the middle of the twentieth century, the expression of homosexuality was grounds for termination and ridicule, the authors are very clear about the activities of some of the gay friends of Tarski. One was even robbed once and then murdered later as a consequence of being gay. Yet, Tarski was free to seduce females with impunity, as he made no secret of his actions. At the start of the twenty-first century, expressing homosexuality is accepted and any sexual activity between a professor and student is grounds for termination.
The authors have used an effective structure in creating this book. The passages containing the heavy mathematics have chapter headings called interludes and the biographical sections are given specific titles. This allows the reader with little experience in logic to avoid the heavy mental lifting.
Alfred Tarski was a genius and very lucky in many ways, most specifically in his choice of wife. He also lived at a time when sex with your students was at least a tolerated perk of being a professor. Arrogant, cranky, opinionated and adored, he cut a swath through the mathematical community that will keep him remembered as long as mathematics is practiced and studied. A blunt and accurate biography, this book depicts Tarski as thoroughly Polish, brilliant, an egomaniac, a lifelong drug user, tolerant of "alternative" lifestyles and as both a positive and negative role model. It is the most entertaining biography of a mathematician that I have ever read.
Mathematics & Life
Fabulous!Alfred Tarski was one of the two greatest mathematical logicians of the twentieth century. (The other was Kurt Gödel.)Solomon Feferman, a student of Tarki's in the early fifties and a friend for over twenty years throughout the rest of Tarski's life, is himself one of most outstanding logicians of our day. Anita Feferman, Solomon Feferman's wife, is the author of the tremendously exciting biography of the logician and bodyguard to Leon Trotsky, Jean van Heijenoort: "From Trotsky to Gödel".(I know it's difficult to believe that a logician could also have been Trotsky's bodyguard; her book must be read to be believed!)
Clearly, this Tarski biography is a labor of love. I completely agree with those reviewers who have explained in detail why this book reads in places more like an exciting novel than a mere biography. What I found very impressive was the beautiful, delicate balance of the book between Tarski's mathematical accomplishments on the one hand and the daily features of his personal life on the other. He was not just a mathematician but rather a force of nature, a tornado, who swept everyone around him in his wake. Students, other mathematicians, university administrators, friends, colleagues, and especially women were all pulled into his mathematical and personal whirlwind.
No praise would be excessive for this outstanding book!
Intriguing story - far beyond my expectation!
To be honest, I started reading this book with some suspicion.In the first place, I was neither a fan of Tarski nor of S.Feferman.Though I did regard Tarski as one of the intellectual giants in the 20th century, I still frowned at the book's opening description of him as one of the "greatest" logicians of all time - on a par with my own hero Godel.My feeling towards S.Feferman was similarly ambivalent.In spite of his substantial contribution as the editor-in-chief of Godel's Collected Works and the universal praise he has received for that project, its end-result (the project was abandoned for running out of supports in 2005) is seriously lacking.For one thing, after almost 30 years' work the huge bulk of Godel's Nachlass in Gabelsberger (an almost extinct German shorthand) has been left unpublished (although approximately half of it has already been transcripted).It seems that more emphasis had been given by the editors and their colleague commentators on INTERPRETING Godel rather than making the inaccessible original material available to the wider public.I have always doubted the wisdom of Feferman's chief-editorship on this and other issues
Nevertheless, Feferman turns out to be a much more successful co-biographer of Tarski than an editor of Godel.The Tarski book goes far beyond my expectation.I simply couldn't put it down and went without sleeps for several nights until my eyes could no longer tolerate my indulgence.The reading has made Tarski an immensely more interesting figure to me - almost as interesting and intriguing as the enigmatic Godel.This aftermath is something which I could never have anticipated in my wildest dreams beforehand.
Since I agree with much of the praises from the Amazon Editorial and Customer Reviews of the book, I don't think it desirable to re-enumerate the book's various merits which others have already done.Needless to say, the book is not perfect and leaves much that is desired unaccounted.For one thing, although the book does present an interesting picture of the development of logic in the last century, it is presented from the Fefermans' highly personalized viewpoint and very one-sided.For example, from the book the reader will only get a very uninformed idea of the development of set theory which happens to be both Tarski's lifelong "hobby" and a source of intellectual uneasiness since he had a certain (though ambivalent perhaps, for he sometimes spoke in a Platonist tone) nominalist temperament while set theory is prima facie concerned with highly transfinite objects and often pursued by pronounced "realists" like Cantor, Zermelo, Godel (who was in effect described insane when Tarski declared himself as "the greatest living sane logician" ) et al.It is arguable that similar tension should also occur in Model Theory where Tarski reigned.But there is no discussion on this issue.It will also be interesting to know how Tarski reacted towards the epoch-making invention of forcing by P.Cohen in 1963, when the former was still an active researcher.The Fefermans say almost nothing on this either, although S.Feferman himself was one of the earliest developers of forcing immediately after Cohen.My own conjecture is that, like Godel, Tarski did not take forcing to be FUNDAMENTAL.Godel almost had a proof of the independence of the axiom of choice in the 1940s, but he abandoned the project partly because he did not want to encourage other logicians to plunge into a pursuit of independence proofs instead of trying to discover and develop new, further TRUE axioms of mathematics.Presumably the nominalist (by lips?) Tarski will perceive the issue very differently from the Platonist Godel.Yet the book gives us little clues about such and various other issues.
Paradoxically, it is precisely from the frankly personalized and unsystematic viewpoints of the Fefermans and other intimates of Tarski that we find much that is valuable.Moreover, unlike the Godel case, the authors did not forget to let the protagonist to present himself.And in spite of its moderate length and lack of comprehensiveness the book does manage to weave abundant insights into their captivating story of this intriguing man who is, given all his unconventional acts and deeds notwithstanding, first and foremost "powered by his ideas" (as Peter Hoffman puts it) with an extraordinary self-confidence throughout his life.It is amidst this web of insights that we are granted some of those very rare glimpses into the mind of a genius that so few biographers have ever accomplished.
truth is in the eye of the phd student!?
unlike all the previous praises this book seems to have gotten, i was not impressed by it. the book is an account of tarski the academician as seen/experienced by his phd students one of whom is the co-author himself.
the book is an account of tarski's academic life which is apparently believed to be best reflected through his students' eyes. this account fails to put in anything else. even what his son and daughter have to say is missing for the most part. there are many things which go unexplained or unquestioned:
1. why was tarski so much into nature?
2. why was he obsessed with rigor and formality? just stating an observation and looking for the reasons of that observation makes the difference between a fact telling book on the verge of being a mere factoid and an intriguing/enriching one. this book is unfortunately as shallow as can be when it comes to some psychological assessments.
3. why was tarski a womanizer? was he really that or did he like portraying himself as one?
4. was he a tyrant and if so, why?
the authors make a huge deal out of the fact that he was a jew. can it be that this whole emphasis on his religious and ethnic origin is anachronic in nature? maybe he just did not care, really. why did he choose catholicism? just because? or was he so ambitious that he did not really have any ground rules at all? in the end, these questions all go unanswered.
giving 5 stars for such a shallow book is unwarranted and is an unjust blow to some successful biographies such as the enigma (about alan turing) crafted by andrew hodges.
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