Thursday, February 24, 2005

I didn't know Einstein and Gödel got on this well...


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.” Einstein freely indulged his appetite for heavy German cooking; Gödel subsisted on a valetudinarian’s diet of butter, baby food, and laxatives. Although Einstein’s private life was not without its complications, outwardly he was jolly and at home in the world. Gödel, by contrast, had a tendency toward paranoia. He believed in ghosts; he had a morbid dread of being poisoned by refrigerator gases; he refused to go out when certain distinguished mathematicians were in town, apparently out of concern that they might try to kill him. “Every chaos is a wrong appearance,” he insisted—the paranoiac’s first axiom.

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.” Part of the reason, it seems, was that Gödel was undaunted by Einstein’s reputation and did not hesitate to challenge his ideas. As another member of the institute, the physicist Freeman Dyson, observed, “Gödel was . . . the only one of our colleagues who walked and talked on equal terms with Einstein.” But if Einstein and Gödel seemed to exist on a higher plane than the rest of humanity, it was also true that they had become, in Einstein’s words, “museum pieces.” Einstein never accepted the quantum theory of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Gödel believed that mathematical abstractions were every bit as real as tables and chairs, a view that philosophers had come to regard as laughably naïve. Both Gödel and Einstein insisted that the world is independent of our minds, yet rationally organized and open to human understanding. United by a shared sense of intellectual isolation, they found solace in their companionship. “They didn’t want to speak to anybody else,” another member of the institute said. “They only wanted to speak to each other.”

People wondered what they spoke about. Politics was presumably one theme. (Einstein, who supported Adlai Stevenson, was exasperated when Gödel chose to vote for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.) Physics was no doubt another. Gödel was well versed in the subject; he shared Einstein’s mistrust of the quantum theory, but he was also skeptical of the older physicist’s ambition to supersede it with a “unified field theory” that would encompass all known forces in a deterministic framework. Both were attracted to problems that were, in Einstein’s words, of “genuine importance,” problems pertaining to the most basic elements of reality. Gödel was especially preoccupied by the nature of time, which, he told a friend, was the philosophical question. How could such a “mysterious and seemingly self-contradictory” thing, he wondered, “form the basis of the world’s and our own existence”? That was a matter in which Einstein had shown some expertise.

They could make a movie about this...

“There it was, inconceivably, K. Goedel, listed just like any other name in the bright orange Princeton community phonebook,” writes Goldstein, who came to Princeton University as a graduate student of philosophy in the early nineteen-seventies. (It’s the setting of her novel “The Mind-Body Problem.”) “It was like opening up the local phonebook and finding B. Spinoza or I. Newton.” 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.”

So naïve and otherworldly was the great logician that Einstein felt obliged to help look after the practical aspects of his life. One much retailed story concerns Gödel’s decision after the war to become an American citizen. The character witnesses at his hearing were to be Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern, one of the founders of game theory. Gödel took the matter of citizenship with great solemnity, preparing for the exam by making a close study of the United States Constitution. On the eve of the hearing, he called Morgenstern in an agitated state, saying he had found an “inconsistency” in the Constitution, one that could allow a dictatorship to arise. Morgenstern was amused, but he realized that Gödel was serious and urged him not to mention it to the judge, fearing that it would jeopardize Gödel’s citizenship bid. On the short drive to Trenton the next day, with Morgenstern serving as chauffeur, Einstein tried to distract Gödel with jokes. When they arrived at the courthouse, the judge was impressed by Gödel’s eminent witnesses, and he invited the trio into his chambers. After some small talk, he said to Gödel, “Up to now you have held German citizenship.”

No, Gödel corrected, Austrian.

“In any case, it was under an evil dictatorship,” the judge continued. “Fortunately that’s not possible in America.”

“On the contrary, I can prove it is possible!” Gödel exclaimed, and he began describing the constitutional loophole he had descried. But the judge told the examinee that “he needn’t go into that,” and Einstein and Morgenstern succeeded in quieting him down. A few months later, Gödel took his oath of citizenship.

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