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.