cover image Journey to the Edge of Reason: The Life of Kurt Gödel

Journey to the Edge of Reason: The Life of Kurt Gödel

Stephen Budiansky. Norton, $30 (384p) ISBN 978-1-324-00544-5

Historian Budiansky (Oliver Wendell Holmes) recaps the revolutionary work of mathematician and logician Kurt Gödel (1906–1978) in this probing biography. Budiansky details how Gödel showed the limits of logic in math with his work, and sailed past those limits in his delusions, outlining Gödel’s theories on the most abstract of questions along the way. Most notable is Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, which proved in the early 1930s that every mathematical system contains statements that are true yet not provable; this refuted fashionable “positivist” philosophical arguments that all truths could be found by empirical observation. Budiansky situates Gödel’s work in a vivid panorama of his intellectual circle in Vienna between the wars, and explores the metaphysical conclusions Gödel drew from it—a Platonist belief that ideas have an independent existence, and that there is a spiritual order to the universe. Budiansky’s account of Gödel’s later years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., shows the logician’s passion for unprovable truths souring into paranoia, including a persistent conviction that his food was poisoned (his wife sometimes had to taste it to demonstrate otherwise), and he ultimately starved himself to death. Budiansky keeps things accessible—an appendix, for example, explains Gödel’s proofs concisely­—and Gödel comes through as a brilliant though tragic figure in Budiansky’s richly descriptive prose. This captivating portrait of a great if neurotic mind hits the mark . Photos. (May)