Simon Ings

Waiting for Gödel is over: the reclusive genius emerges from the shadows

The Austrian mathematician’s archive, written in archaic shorthand and only recently decyphered, is finally given human shape by Stephen Budiansky

Kurt Gödel, photographed at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where he was ‘too alone’, according to his friend Oskar Morgenstern. Credit: Alamy

The 20th-century Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel did his level best to live in the world as his philosophical hero Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz imagined it: a place of pre-established harmony, whose patterns are accessible to reason. It’s an optimistic world, and a theological one: a universe presided over by a God who does not play dice. It’s most decidedly not a 20th-century world, but ‘in any case’, as Gödel himself once commented, ‘there is no reason to trust blindly in the spirit of the time’.

His fellow mathematician Paul Erdös was appalled: ‘You became a mathematician so that people should study you,’ he complained, ‘not that you should study Leibnitz.’ But Gödel always did prefer study to self-expression, and this is chiefly why we know so little about him, and why the spectacular deterioration of his final years — a fantasmagoric tale of imagined conspiracies, strange vapours and shadowy intruders, ending in his self-starvation in 1978 — has come to stand for the whole of his life.

‘Nothing, Gödel believed, happened without a reason,’ says Stephen Budiansky. ‘It was at once an affirmation of ultrarationalism, and a recipe for utter paranoia.’ You need hindsight to see the paranoia waiting to pounce. But the ultra-rationalism — that was always tripping him up. There was something worryingly non-stick about him. He didn’t so much resist the spirit of the time as blunder about totally oblivious of it. He barely noticed the Anschluss, barely escaped Vienna as the Nazis assumed control, and, once ensconced at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, barely credited that tragedy was even possible, or that, say, a friend might die in a concentration camp (it took three letters for his mother to convince him).

Gödel didn’t so much resist the spirit of the times as blunder about totally oblivious of it

Many believed that he’d blundered, in a way typical to him, into marriage with his life-long partner, a footcare specialist and divorcée called Adele Nimbursky.

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