By Chet Yarbrough
Journey to the Edge of Reason (The Life of Kurt Gödel)
By: Stephen Budiansky
Narrated by: Bob Souer
Stephen Budiansky (American writer, historian, and biographer with B.S. in chemistry and S.M. in applied mathematics, Yale and Harvard.)
Stephen Budiansky offers a biography of one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. His name was Kurt Gödel.
Kurt Gödel (Logician, mathematician, philosopher 1906-1978.)
It is the biographic details and good writing that make “Journey to the Edge of Reason” interesting. Budiansky sets a table for what becomes Gödel’s life.
Budiansky explains the history of Austria before WWI and WWII. Gödel’s family lives an upper-middleclass life when their son Kurt is born. That lifestyle is interrupted by WWI and destroyed by WWII. In the mid-19th century, the Austro-Hungarian empire, particularly Vienna, is a center for education and culture in Europe. Unlike much of the continent, equality of opportunity, regardless of religion and ethnicity, were available in the Austro-Hungarian’ capitol of Vienna. For a short time, Vienna became a magnate for Jewish immigrants seeking education and opportunity.
When the heir to Franz Joseph’s throne, Archduke Francis Ferdinand is assassinated, religious and ethnic difference becomes increasingly disparate and nationalistic. After WWI, it becomes impossible for the empire to stay together, but Vienna remains a cultural and educational center for Europe. It is in this environment that Gödel is born and formally educated.
Gödel is an excellent student who attends studies among many who were increasingly discriminated against, particularly Jews. Though not Jewish, Gödel is not infected by growing anti-Jewish sentiment of the times. Budiansky reminds listeners that Hitler grows up in this Austrian Viennese environment.
WWII arrives and the Gödel family falls on hard times. Before the second world war, in 1931, Kurt Gödel develops the “incompleteness theorem” of mathematics. He is only 25. He is soon recognized by leading mathematicians for this foundational theory.
Kurt Gödel developed two theorems of mathematical logic that limit the provability of mathematics. One plus one makes two, but Gödel’s fundamental theories claim its truth is mathematically unprovable. To one steeped in mathematics that may make sense. To this reviewer, it does not.
Budiansky explains how Gödel eventually escapes Vienna at the beginning of WWII. He arrives at Princeton in 1940. Gödel becomes close friends with Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern. Budiansky notes how instrumental other geniuses, like John von-Neumann, were in advancing Gödel’s career.
John von Neumann (1903-1957, Hungarian American mathematician, physicist, computer scientist, engineer and polymath with an eidetic memory.)
A striking fact in Budiansky’s biography of Gödel is how many geniuses came to America from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Without its education system, the Viennese equal opportunity, and the attraction of western freedom, the advance of science and its role in the world would be diminished.
Gödel’s life story revolves around math and its provability limits. Gödel’s life waivers between paranoia and accommodation with periods of terror and intermittent tranquility. Gödel’s paranoia is relieved at times and Budiansky notes his friends recognized his genius while noting his episodic behavioral abnormality.
A surprising sidelight to Budiansky’s biography is Gödel’s odd marriage to what Budiansky characterizes as an uneducated Austrian woman named Adele.
Budiansky explains Adele saves Gödel’s life by bringing him back to reality when he nearly starves himself to death with a paranoid belief that someone is trying to poison him.
Gödel takes daily walks with Einstein. Their walks are legendary according to Budiansky. They were frequently seen together at Princeton. Einstein recognizes Gödel’s paranoia for what it is but acknowledges the brilliance of his understanding of mathematics, its logistic continuity, and its limitation.
There often seems a fine line between genius and normality. One is reminded of the unheralded Paul Dirac who is compared by some to Einstein but, because of his isolationist behavior, is largely unknown to the general public.
As a non-mathematician one may not understand the importance of Gödel’s theory, but Budiansky does a great service to the public by writing Gödel’s biography.