Tuesday 14 January 2014

Kurt Godel

Back in the late 70s Douglas Hofstadter published a weighty tome called Gödel Escher Bach An Eternal Golden Braid.  I ate it all up at the time as it was long, discursive and full of nifty connexions. About ten years ago when I had convenient access to the enormous TCD library, I took the book down from its shelf and tried to read it again.  Clearly my attention span had slumped several points in the intervening decades because I found it dense, opaque and obscure.  A similar revelation happened when I tried Lord of the Rings at the age of 50 - who really gives a toss about Tom Bombadill and aren't we glad he never made it into the films of the book?

I think I'll rant on about Hofstadter later in the year, but today let's talk briefly about Kurt Gödel, who gets tiptop billing in GEB-EGB.  The fact that the acronym of the subtitle is an anagram of the acronym of the title sums up the "disappeared up his own bottom" aspects of Gödel Escher Bach. Kurt Gödel was born into the same culture and same town as Gregor Mendel lived the largest part of his adult life.  The region is so multicultural and multilingual that Brno/Brünn/ברין is not sure what to call itself. But at least they seem to have more obviously the same root than say Breslau/Wroclaw. Talking about Mendel last July, I reflected on the disturbingly sliding international borders in Central Europe, which must have confused the hell out of the plain people who lived there.  Every few years the tax-forms changed colour.

Gödel experienced this rather directly.  He was born a German-speaking citizen of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  At the age of 12 in 1918 he and his family became <shazzam!> Czech. He went to college in Wien/Vienna and at the age of 23 adopted Austrian citizenship.  At 32 on the wake of the 1938 Anschluß he became a German.   Ten years later (42!!) after the world had settled down and Gödel was happily professoring in Princeton he became an American citizen.

His contributions to mathematics and logic are enormous.  He is shown here comparing hats with Einstein and it's pretty clear that contents of their heads were pretty good equals.  His fame rests primarily on his early Über formal unentscheidbare Sätze der "Principia Mathematica" und verwandter Systeme. This is usually called his Incompleteness Theorem, which said that it was impossible to construct an internally consistent universe of mathematics.  Gödel demonstrated that he/one/you (not me, I'm not clever enough) could write a statement that was true but formally unprovable as true . . . I think.

Poor chap went entire off the rails in his later years.  Convinced that somebody was trying to poison him, he refused to eat any food unless it had been cooked by his wife Adele.  When she was ill and had to be hospitalised for six months, Gödel therefore refused to eat and died of "malnutrition and inanition": he starved himself to death, finally pegging out on 14th Jan 1978, the year GEBEGB was published. The  many people from his home town who called it ברין died of similar symptoms but under circumstances rather beyond their control (Anschluß and subsequent events y'know).

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