Thursday, January 25, 2024

Journey to the Edge of Reason

"That he is an important man is shown again and again, but he is a little crazy."
-Oskar Morganstern

Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) is famous as the mathematician who proved that mathematics doesn't quite work. The result is known as the Incompleteness Theorem, and before Gödel's proof, mathematicians assumed anything you could say with elementary mathematics (from 2+2=4, e.g., and on up) could be proven either true or false. It might be hard, it might be impossible for me or you, but it could be done. In 1930 Gödel demonstrated it can't. 

You can create mathematical statements, using math no more complicated than addition and equality, whose truth is unprovable.

Gödel was born in Brno, now in the Czech Republic, but then the largely German-speaking town of Brünn in Austria-Hungary. His father owned a textile factory and was reasonably well off. After the breakup of Austria-Hungary at the end of World War I, financially the Gödels were better off with their money in Czechoslovakia, but when it came time for young Kurt to go to college, in 1924, he went to Vienna, the old imperial capital, which still had the best universities. (It was also becoming uncomfortable in Czechoslovakia for German speakers). 

Budiansky is clearly in love with Vienna. (Understandable.) He spends quite a lot of time on the atmosphere in Vienna, citing figures whose connection to Gödel is pretty non-existent--Joseph Roth, Robert Musil--but whose interest to readers is large. Vienna was Gödel's home for roughly fifteen years, and a large portion of his important work was done there, so it's appropriate enough.

But Vienna was becoming problematic. Gödel wasn't Jewish, but his friends were; as things got worse, the sort of mathematics that Gödel did got labeled 'Jewish mathematics' (What's that?) and after Anschluss, the university wasn't going to allow that sort of math any more. Gödel did a semester as a fellow at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study when it opened in 1933--Einstein was one of their first hires--and though Gödel didn't much like Princeton, his friends there kept suggesting he come back.

He was subject to paranoid fantasies (though one of his mathematical colleagues was assassinated by a right-wing student, so maybe not entirely paranoid).  His girlfriend Adele was married and under Catholic Austrian law she couldn't get divorced, so the two of them couldn't leave the country as married. Also he was inclined to be apolitical, and was politically naive. 

But after Anschluss in 1938, German law applied in Austria, allowing divorce and remarriage. Kurt and Adele married. Gödel was still sluggish about the need to leave, but after much prodding he did, ultimately taking a full-time position at the Institute for Advanced Study.

And became close friends with Einstein

Through the forties, he continued to do mathematics, working with Oskar Morganstern and John von Neumann. The later years he taught (though he was a terribly shy teacher) and continued to suffer periods of paranoia.

And why was I interested in a biography of Kurt Gödel you might ask?

I read Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach around when it came out, devoured it more like. It was probably the first serious non-fiction book I read on my own. There were various essays in 2019 for the fortieth anniversary of the book, and I thought about rereading it then, but didn't, but when I saw about the new biography of Kurt Gödel, I was primed to be interested. The biography was well done. The proof of the Incompleteness Theorem is relatively (...?) easy to understand, but Budiansky saves the explanation of that for an appendix, where he does a pretty good job, and otherwise you can read the biography without math.

And am I about to reread Hofstadter? Well, if you look closely you can see a purple bookmark there...

Austria. Could be the Czech Republic, I suppose, but no, not really. Vienna is where it happens. Last year's Austria book for the challenge was another biography of an intellectual who left in the 30s and came to the U.S., Victor Gruen.

Monday, January 22, 2024

And the winner is... (CC Spin #36)


That means Konstantin Stanislavski's autobiography My Life In Art. Though not what I expected--it's gotta be a number more in the middle, doesn't it?...😉--it should be a good read. 

Stanislavski (1863-1938) was an actor, director, and co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre. He acted in and directed many (all? but I didn't look) of the premieres of Anton Chekhov's plays, such as The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. He lived through the Russian Revolution and on into the Stalin years, though his autobiography comes out in 1924 and so misses the worst part. He's also the inventor of the Method acting system.

Did you spin? What are you reading?

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Classics Club Spin #36


It's time for the latest Classics Club spin. You likely know the rules. A list of twenty books and next Sunday reveals the book we should read over the next month and a bit. So let's go straight to the list of twenty books.

I'm even nearer to the end of my list than I was at the last spin, so I'm going to concentrate on the books I need to finish my first Classics Club list. 

The First Quatrain:

1.) James Baldwin/Giovanni's Room
2.) Goethe/Wilhelm Meister
3.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara
4.) Virginia Woolf/The Waves

A Second Quatrain:

5.) James Baldwin/Giovanni's Room
6.) Goethe/Wilhelm Meister
7.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara
8.) Virginia Woolf/The Waves

Quatrain the Third:

9.) James Baldwin/Giovanni's Room
10.) Goethe/Wilhelm Meister
11.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara
12.) Virginia Woolf/The Waves

And now, for the Quatrain of quatrains!

13.) James Baldwin/Giovanni's Room
14.) Goethe/Wilhelm Meister
15.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara
16.) Virginia Woolf/The Waves

The pirates say, Just finish the danged books already.

Only one of those is long (the Goethe) and as I've already read two of the others (Giovanni's Room and Major Barbara) but didn't manage to blog about them. (Which I would do if they spin machine chose them.) I really should just finish the stack over the course of the month. 

But as that repetition is looking a little dull, and who doesn't want a bit of danger (?) in a spin, here's a few books from a potential new Classics Club list I've been thinking about:

17.) Luis Vaz de Camões/The Lusiads
18.) Harald Laxness/The Fish Can Sing
19.) Benito Perez Galdos/That Bringas Woman
20.) Konstantin Stanislavsky/My Life in Art

The Stanislavski would be the long one in that last quatrain.

Which look good to you? Are you spinning this time out?