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Alfred Tarski: Life and Logic

Anita Burdman Feferman and Solomon Feferman
Cambridge University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Amy Shell-Gellasch
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Energetically and engagingly written, Alfred Tarski: Life and Logic, by Anita Burdman Feferman and Solomon Feferman, is a necessary addition to the growing list of contemporary biographies such as those of von Neumann and Cantor. This book will be enjoyed by logicians, mathematicians, historians and those interested in the life of a contemporary academic.

The story of Alfred Tarski (1901-1983) has it all: drama, love, intrigue, suspense, in short everything that makes a good story. The Fefermans cover all aspects of Tarski’s life. His childhood and early education and career in Poland up to the second world war, his serendipitous departure for the US just days before the doors out of Poland were closed, his familys seven year struggle to join him in the US, his growing acclaim in the circle of logicians and philosophers and his establishment of a logic empire at Berkeley, and his notorious flirtations and carousing.

Much of the narrative revolves around Tarskis colleagues and in particular his students, who rode the emotional rollercoaster of working with this eccentric and passionate man. Details of the life and work of those closest to him are seamlessly incorporated into the telling of Tarskis life. Julia Robinson, George Kreisel and Rudolf Carnap among others play an integral part in this biography.

Tarski was a world leader in such areas as completeness and decidability theory, foundations and the Axiom of Choice, model theory and algebras of logic. High points of his mathematical work are presented in six inter-chapter interludes. This is an excellent way to present his work in logic, foundations and philosophy of mathematics without burdening the uninterested or unprepared reader. However, these interludes are written as a brief overview or review for the reader with a rather deep knowledge of logic. They are presented too hastily to teach the educated layman, or even mathematicians outside of logic, much if anything of Tarskis contributions. With a little more detail, these chapters could have really added depth for those readers not already in the know.

The authors depict Tarski as both a giant among men as well a mere man, with all the accompanying faults and fears. In so doing many assumptions are made about Tarskis emotions and motivations at various times in his life. Though this makes for interesting and enjoyable reading, and the authors take pains to point out that these are assumptions, it is nonetheless dangerous ground historically. It is too easy for the reader to forget the disclaimer and only remember the emotional depiction presented.

The Fefermans are well placed to write this biography. Solomon Feferman was a student of Tarski and thus knew the working as well as personal side of the man. Anita Burdman Feferman is not new to this line of work. Her biography of Jean van Heijenoort is a wonderfully and deeply written account of this equally flamboyant logician. Their look into the life and work of Alfred Tarski and his impact, both scientifically and emotionally on the people who knew him, is well written, well rounded and well done. It is a valuable contribution to the growing genre of mathematical biographies of substance.

Amy Shell-Gellasch is currently a freelance math historian living in Grafenwoehr Germany while her husband is on a three year tour of duty in Germany. She received her bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan in 1989, her master's degree from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan in 1995, and her doctor of arts degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2000. Her dissertation was a biographical piece on mathematician Mina Rees. Most recently, she conducted research with V. Fredrick Rickey on the history of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the United States Military Academy, where she was an Assistant Professor.

1. The two Tarskis

2. Independence and university

Interlude I. The Banach-Tarski paradox, set theory and the axiom of choice

3. Polot! The Polish attribute

Interlude II. The completeness and decidability of algebra and geometry

4. A wider sphere of influence

Interlude III. Truth and definability

5. How the 'unity of science' saved Tarski's Life

6. Berkeley is so far from Princeton

7. Building a school

Interlude IV. The publication campaigns

8. 'Papa Tarski' and his students

9. Three meetings and two departures

10. Logic and methodology, center stage

11. Heydays

Interlude V. Model theory and the 1963 Symposium

12. Around the world

13. Los Angeles and Berkeley

Interlude VI. Algebras of logic

14. A decade of honors

15. The last times