Today, a mathematician brings us down to earth. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
For some people Kurt
Gödel was the greatest mathematician of the
twentieth century. Well, I'm not crazy about
superlatives, but Gödel was
remarkable. He was born in 1906, part of a German
enclave in Moravia, later to become part of
His people were textile workers. He was shy, edgy,
and so curious about everything that his family
called him Herr Warum -- Mr. Why. He was
already expert in languages, philosophy, and
(especially) in math by the time he finished high
school. He finished his doctoral dissertation in
math while he was still 23.
His thesis was on an arcane subject:
incompleteness. Gödel was on his way
to showing the world something it didn't really
care to hear. The body of his work eventually
convinced us that, if we create any logical system
with a complete set of axioms, those axioms cannot
be consistent. And that's devastating. It means our
best-laid system of logic will never give us the
In any case, Gödel was still in his twenties
when the Prince-ton Institute for Advanced Studies
discovered him. He spent time there, on and off,
during the 1930s. (He got to know Einstein.)
During this time, he was also on the faculty of the
University of Vienna. His teaching there was awful.
He lectured to the blackboard and attracted few
students. He also spent time being
institutionalized for recurrent severe depression.
Toward the late 1930s there was good news and bad
new for Gödel. In 1938 he was married -- to a
nightclub dancer. The bad news was that Hitler's
noose was tightening. Gödel had run with
Jewish intellectuals when he was in college. He was
now about to lose his university post and be hauled
off into the Wehrmacht.
So he and his
new wife fled Austria. It was too dangerous to go
west, so they took a train across Siberia and
caught a ship from Yokohama to San Francisco. From
then on, Gödel worked at Princeton. He and
Einstein became close friends; but he was skeptical
of Einstein's unified field theory and refused to
work with him on it.
After he retired, his last two years were an awful
downhill slide. First, his wife underwent major
surgery; then he refused treatment for a severe
prostate condition. Finally, he fell into deep
depression and paranoia. Terrified that his food
would be poisoned, he died of self-starvation.
Yet his work in philosophy and math repositioned
our sense of self. Before Gödel,
mathematicians thought they were standing at the
door of absolute truth. Now it was clear that math,
like science, was limited. After Gödel, we
were both humbled and liberated. Our ambitions were
carved back to human dimensions.
Gödel practiced a kind of Pangloss optimism.
He looked for an afterlife. And one biographer, who
knew him personally, quoted him as having said:
"Our total reality and total existence are
beautiful and meaningful." Perhaps that's why,
despite his own dark journey, he left us all saner
than we'd been before him.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
G. H. Moore, Gödel, Kurt Friedrich.
Dictionary of Scientific Biography (C.C.
Gilespie, ed.) New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,
H. Wang, A Logical Journey: From Gödel to
Philosophy. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1996.
For more on Gödel, see:
My thanks to Martin Golubitsky, UH Math Department,
for his counsel.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.