- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 10, 2005

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. Unceasingly loyal to her husband, Adele Godel once used her umbrella to fight off a gang of Viennese Nazi thugs who were assaulting him, and served as his food taster during the last paranoiac years of his life. After she was hospitalized in 1977, he starved to death.

Kurt Godel was a solitary genius ensconced in the ivory tower of mathematical logic, but the scientists portrayed in David Ewing Duncan’s book, The Geneticist Who Played Hoops With My DNA And Other Masterminds From The Frontiers of Biotech (William Morrow, $25.95, 254 pages) are engaged, in the words of one of the eponymous masterminds, the Nobelist Sydney Brenner, in “a social activity of the highest sort.” The book’s clumsy title encapsulates Mr. Duncan’s encounter with the Icelandic geneticist and entrepreneur Kari Stefansson, whose company runs comprehensive tests on DNA extracted from individuals. The book approaches its subjects in the irreverent spirit of Lytton Strachey’s “Eminent Victorians,” with each chapter focusing on one leading figure in the field of molecular biology whom Mr. Duncan has interviewed in depth. He titles each profile with an archetype picked from Greek mythology, the Bible or Shakespeare.

Among his subjects are Douglas Melton, a Harvard embryologist eager to continue his research on embryonic stem cells, passionately motivated by a desire to find a cure for the diabetes that afflicts his own children; Cynthia Kenyon, whose work on the genetic basis of aging has encouraged her to aim to live 400 years; Francis Collins and Craig Venter, the bitter rivals who led the two teams, funded respectively by the government and by private sources, that competed to sequence the human genome; James Watson, the prime mover of the molecular biology revolution since he and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA; and two more Nobel Prizewinners from Watson’s generation: the South African-born British researcher, Sidney Brenner, and Paul Berg of Stanford, whose misgivings in the early 1970s over possible disasters led him to call for a pause in recombinant DNA research.

Mr. Duncan concludes by referring to the fictional Dr. Victor Frankenstein, whose monster still fascinates the popular imagination while his real life successors may stand on the precipice of achievements of which he could not even dream.

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics and public issues ranging from nuclear strategy to social policy.


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