A Solitary Genius, Biotech Innovators

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 11, 2005 | Go to article overview

A Solitary Genius, Biotech Innovators


Byline: Jeffrey Marsh, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Kurt Godel (1906-1978) had one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, and one of the strangest. It is appropriate that this new biography of Godel, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel (Norton, $22.95, 280 pages) in the Great Discoveries series is written by Rebecca Goldstein, a professor of philosophy and accomplished novelist who also holds a MacArthur "genius" fellowship. Ms. Goldstein describes the many paradoxes of Godel's life and draws a connection between Godel's psychological quirks and his philosophical orientation as a Platonist with a deep belief that underlaying the many irrational aspects of the observable world is a real world of truth and rationality.

According to Ms. Goldstein, Kurt was just five years old when he first realized that he was much more intelligent than his parents. She believes that this awareness produced extreme anxiety in a young child totally dependent on such undependable adults, for which he compensated by forming the belief that the world was a logical place that he was capable of understanding. His lifelong hypochondria began at the age of eight, when he had a bout of rheumatic fever, learned that it sometimes leads to heart damage, and decided, despite the absence of any evidence, that it his heart was unsound. The other major influence on his personality occurred at the University of Vienna, where, in Ms. Goldstein's words, after taking a course in the history of philosophy given by Heinrich Gomperz, "Kurt Godel fell in love with Platonism, and he was not quite the same person he was before."

Godel originally intended to major in physics, but his intellectual passion for pure truth led him to switch first to mathematics, then to mathematical logic. While still an undergraduate, Godel was invited to join the Vienna Circle, the legendary group of philosophers who propagated the doctrine of logical positivism which holds, in the simplest formulation, that any statement that cannot be verified empirically, is meaningless.

In 1930, when Godel was still a 24-year-old graduate student, he published his famous theorem proving that some mathematical statements were true but could never be proved within the mathematical system itself, a revolutionary conclusion that destroyed the long-held belief of mathematicians in the power of their discipline. This achievement paradoxically made him the most famous figure to come out of the Vienna Circle, because Godel differed fundamentally with the group's whole outlook of logical positivism, which he believed his theorem had disproved. Ms. Goldstein shows how he spent the rest of his life vainly trying to correct the popular impression of his achievement.

Going beyond the bounds of philosophy, Ms. Goldstein provides much intriguing discussion of Godel's personal life, including his close friendship with Albert Einstein, his colleague at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton where he spent the last 40 years of his life, the exasperation his other colleagues there felt with his extreme deference to authority and his unexpected and long-lasting marriage to a former cabaret dancer. …

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