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General News    H4'ed 5/25/21

Geniuses in the rye

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A Review of the Book: "Journey to the Edge of Reason: The Life of Kurt Godel, by Stephen Burdiansky

Geniuses in the Rye

Here, the author, Stephen Budiansky, has allowed the Kurt Godel story to tell itself. And what an intense and harrowing story it is.

In doing so, he has fully delivered the goods; from giving us a thumbnail sketch within the narrative of Godel famous Incompleteness Theorem, to devoting an entire appendix to a more detailed exposition of it.

The problem referred to, of course, is that set forth in 1900 by the still incomparable mathematical genius and Godfather of mathematics, David Hilbert: to the effect that a logical pest had bored his way into the very foundation of mathematics, and needed to be rooted out.

It was twenty-one year old Kurt Godel's job to find that pest, root it out and then assess the damage it had done. Godel did himself proud as he found the pest and shocked the world in the process with a proof that exposed the damage done to the logical foundation of mathematics.

But Burdiansky does more than just give us rich mathematical subtext. He regales us with what happened in Nazi-occupied Vienna in the run up to WW-II and afterwards. It is an exquisitely intense, sometimes romantic if not somewhat nostalgic political stand-alone analysis of how Austrian coffeehouse society became just another run of the mill Jew-hating fascist European democratic republic (with unmistakable shadows of and parallels to, America and Europe, post-Obama).

Altogether, it and his devoted mathematical excursions, make this a meticulously researched job, encompassing a grippingly true and unlikely story with the staying power to become a movie.

What is most interesting about the book is that the political and human subplots dominate as they intertwine and converge to a common motif seen many times before: A socially awkward genius either peaking too early or too late and then never quite rising to the moment demanded by the public or by history.

Think in the ballpark of a Ted Kaczynsky (who just died today), John Nash, or even Richard Feynman, but without all their respective fireworks and baggage. For all of the similarities in backgrounds, Kurt Godel's genius was quiet, and his story pristine, and stands alone as unique.

Unlike the other well-known mathematical geniuses in Godel's story, when the clock in the grand ballroom strikes midnight, and Hitler pulls the plug on Europe, not only does Godel remain a Prince-Charming, but so too do his best friends, noble laureates Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and Oskar Morgenstern, who all fled to America, where they repeatedly ran interference for, and came to Godel's aid in times of need.

Only after he takes his bows, and exits Europe, stage right, does his oversized brain begin tilting towards the windmills, turning his royal carriage not into a pumpkin but into a Plymouth.

But all is not lost as Princeton proved to have infinite patience with Godel and his Austrian washerwoman wife, Adele.

After a stormy ride in the US, his health stabilizes, he wins awards, and he and Adele eventually ride off into the sunset to live happily ever afterwards in their new house on the outskirts of Princeton, New Jersey.

But it turns out that happily ever afterwards is a lot shorter than either of them had expected, as Kurt's lurking mental problems (similar to what happened to both Nash and Kaczynsky) resurfaced to bedevil him for the remainder of his life.

And while riding off into the New Jersey sunset might be the end of the narrative arc, there remains the problem of understanding this famous logician's solution to the problem of mathematical incompleteness. Anyone who has tried to understand it, as I have several times, can appreciate the challenge.

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
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