Friday, March 11, 2005

Gödel Gone Wild

The New Yorker of Feb. 28 has an article (online) "Time Bandits," by Jim Holt, about the friendship between Einstein and Kurt Gödel. The latter was, shall we say, a little on the odd side.
Gödel, who has often been called the greatest logician since Aristotle, was a strange and ultimately tragic man. Whereas Einstein was gregarious and full of laughter, Gödel was solemn, solitary, and pessimistic. Einstein, a passionate amateur violinist, loved Beethoven and Mozart. Gödel’s taste ran in another direction: his favorite movie was Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” and when his wife put a pink flamingo in their front yard he pronounced it furchtbar herzig—“awfully charming.”
Nevertheless, Einstein treasured his friendship:
Although other members of the institute found the gloomy logician baffling and unapproachable, Einstein told people that he went to his office “just to have the privilege of walking home with Kurt Gödel.”
Grad students, take heart:
Einstein’s conclusions were the product of pure thought, proceeding from the most austere assumptions about nature. In the century since he derived them, they have been precisely confirmed by experiment after experiment. Yet his June, 1905, paper on relativity was rejected when he submitted it as a dissertation.
Many others shared Einstein's veneration of Gödel:
Although Gödel was still little known in the world at large, he had a godlike status among the cognoscenti. “I once found the philosopher Richard Rorty standing in a bit of a daze in Davidson’s food market,” Goldstein writes. “He told me in hushed tones that he’d just seen Gödel in the frozen food aisle.”
Happy birthday, Albert:
Gödel wanted a proof [that time did not exist] that had the rigor and certainty of mathematics. And he saw just what he wanted lurking within relativity theory. He presented his argument to Einstein for his seventieth birthday, in 1949, along with an etching. (Gödel’s wife had knitted Einstein a sweater, but she decided not to send it.)
Professor emeriti, take heart:
Einstein’s circle of friends had shrunk to Gödel and a few others. One of them was Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, to whom he confided, in March, 1955, that “the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” He died a month later, at the age of seventy-six. When Gödel and another colleague went to his office at the institute to deal with his papers, they found the blackboard covered with dead-end equations.
After Einstein died, Gödel's eccentricities ballooned until he was — how shall I put this? — a major loon. The following sounds like a Woody Allen script:
Gödel became ever more withdrawn. He preferred to conduct all conversations by telephone, even if his interlocutor was a few feet distant. When he especially wanted to avoid someone, he would schedule a rendezvous at a precise time and place, and then make sure he was somewhere far away.
He died on January 14, 1978, having "succumbed to self-starvation."

Read the whole thing, it's fascinating, and also contains brief descriptions both of Einstein's theory of relativity and of Gödel's incompleteness theorem. Not bad for a magazine article.

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