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Home » I went to the office “just to have the privilege of walking home with Kurt Gödel” — Albert Einstein

I went to the office “just to have the privilege of walking home with Kurt Gödel” — Albert Einstein

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He didn’t say it about you, did he?

So who was this man, possessed of so powerful an intellect Einstein simply wanted to be in his presence?

For starters, Gödel (above, with Einstein at Princeton) has often been called the greatest logician since Aristotle.

Said eminent physicist Freeman Dyson, along with Gödel and Einstein a member of Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies, “Gödel was… the only one of our colleagues who walked and talked on equal terms with Einstein.”

Jim Holt wrote a wonderful appreciation of Gödel as part of a review of Rebecca Goldstein’s new book, “Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel.”

He also worked into his article a discussion of John S. Rigden’s “Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatnesss,” another new book, which explores in detail Einstein’s annus mirabilis of 1905.

Consider that the 25-year-old Einstein was that year working alone on his physics between tasks at his day job as a clerk in a Swiss patent office.

In March 1905 he published a paper explaining the photoelectric effect; it would be the basis of the Nobel Prize he was awarded in 1921.

In April and May came two papers which explained the up-to-then mysterious nature of Brownian motion: Einstein established in these paired works the reality of atoms, gave a theoretical estimate of their size, and showed how their bumping around caused Brownian motion.

Then came his June paper which unveiled his theory of relativity.

As a sort of encore, in September of the same year he published a three-page note containing the most famous equation of all time: E = mc².

Historians of science say that any one of Einstein’s five 1905 papers would have guaranteed him a tenured chair in the physics department of any university in the world, even if he had never published another word.

Holt’s piece appears in the current (February 28) New Yorker.

Here are some random snippets.

    United by a shared sense of intellectual isolation, they [Gödel and Einstein] 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.”

    [Gödel’s] incompleteness theorems were hailed in 1953 as the most important mathematical discovery of the previous hundred years.

    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?”

    There is no universal now. With different observers slicing up the timescape into “past,” “present,” and “future” in different ways, it seems to follow that all moments coexist with equal reality.

    Some thinkers… [maintain] that Gödel’s incompleteness theorems have profound implications for the nature of the human mind.

    Our mental powers, it is argued, must outstrip those of any computer, since a computer is just a logical system running on hardware, and our minds can arrive at truths that are beyond the reach of a logical system.

    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 kind of daze in Davidson’s food market,” Goldstein writes. “He told me he had just seen Gödel in the frozen food aisle.”

    Gödel… believed that time, as it was intuitively understood, did not exist at all.

    A resident of Gödel’s universe could travel back to any point in his own past.

    If time travel is possible, he submitted, then time itself is impossible.

    A past that can be revisited has not really passed.

    Time, like God, is either necessary or nothing; if it disappears in one possible universe, it is undermined in every possible universe, including our own.

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  • DrPat

    Here’s another ASIN for free: 0465026567 (Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid). This is a fantastic book by Douglas R. Hofstadter (author of Metamagical Themas and a regular column in Scientific American [B00005QDWG]) that actually manages to make the brilliant thoughts of these three artists accessible.

  • David

    The trouble with “Gödel, Escher, Bach” is its apparent belief that its three protagonists merit roughly equal status in the pantheon of geniuses. Bach’s and Gödel’s respective contributions to their fields are virtually unrivaled in human history. Escher, however, is merely clever. Comparing him to the other two is rather like writing a book about baseball and calling it “Williams, DiMaggio, Buckner.”

  • Eric Olsen

    interesting point David, my (tortured, to be frank) reading of the book, which I never finished, was that the linking between the three wasn’t so much equal status as their use of “mutating loops,” for lack of a better phrase

  • JR

    “Strange loops”

    I’m reading the book now (and probably for the next six months). I love it.

  • Eric Olsen

    I was pretty close. This was over 20 years ago – I think my rudimentary understanding of how computers work — processes within processes — might make it easier going now

  • DrPat

    Escher, however, is merely clever.

    One of the great things about Gödel, Escher, Bach, IMHO, was the way in which Hofstader revealed the genius of Escher. To dismiss him as “clever” is to miss the depth of his vision.

  • Aaman

    That also illustrates, perhaps, the genius of Hofstader. Hofstader also called the belief that Godel’s proof precludes Artificial Intelligence “a transient moment of anthropocentric glory” and felt that the proof actually offered an insight into the workings of human intelligence which would lead to true AI (If we can do it, and we don’t know how, then perhaps we need to construct systems differently so they can do it, even if they do not know how)

    Simple, link-rich summary of math upto, and slightly beyond, Godel.

    Also, John Neumann was blown away by Godel’s theorems. His own work set the underpinnings for the electronic computer as it works today, and is therefore ‘built’ on Godel’s theorem. Interestingly, what it implies is that, even for man-made computers, we can say they work, but at a certain level, cannot say ‘why’.

    In short, we can construct multiple versions of mathematical ‘truth’ – thus, we could have multiple versions of ‘reality’. Convenient in a post-modern, post-national era.:)