The Strange, Brilliant Mind of Kurt Godel

Perhaps no one better personifies the old adage that there’s a fine line between genius and insanity than 20th century Austrian-American mathematician and logician Kurt Godel.

Kurt Godel (right) and Albert Einstein at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study

Kurt Godel (right) and Albert Einstein at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study

Godel (1906-78) is commonly ranked as one of history’s intellectual giants, on the order of Aristotle, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein (the latter who was his colleague and friend).  Prominent Stanford University Mathematics and Philosophy Professor Solomon Feferman said Godel is “Beyond comparison … the most important logician of our times,” and Time magazine included Godel in their ‘100 Greatest Minds of the 20th Century.’

Composed when he was 25, his incompleteness theorems  were considered earth shattering and today are ranked as landmarks in the history of mathematics and philosophy. These novel mathematical theorems showed that no closed mathematical system can prove everything and cannot be used to even prove its own accuracy. The later is similar to the philosophical idea that “A human cannot prove the accuracy of his own mind, because he uses this same mind to judge the accuracy.”  He invented his own mathematical language to illustrate his theorems.

While vocationally accomplished and acknowledge as brilliant in his lifetime, Godel was almost as well known for his extreme eccentricities and periods of mental instability.  The following are a few examples of his curious ideas and ways:

* While a Professor of Mathematics at Princeton New Jerseys’s world famous Institute for Advanced Studies, he would wear a heavy full length fur coat outside on the hottest days of summer and leave open the windows and doors of his home on the coldest, snowiest days of winter.

* He stated he didn’t trust common sense and didn’t follow it.

* Near the end of his life he was working to mathematically prove the existence of God.

* While studying for the test to become an American citizen (he was born in Austria and immigrated to the US as an adult), he became convinced that the US Constitution legally allowed for  the United States to become a fascist dictatorship.   Einstein advised him to keep this theory to himself, for fear voicing it would hinder his chances of becoming a citizen.  Unable to contain himself, Godel told his theory to the judge administering the exam.  Lucky for Godel, the judge thought he making a joke and idly dismissed it.  Godel passed the exam and became an American citizen.

*  He became irrationally paranoid of germs and being poisoned to the point that only ate food prepared by his wife. When his wife fell ill and was in the hospital unable to cook for him, he starved to death. He didn’t even trust food he himself made.

 

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