Friday, December 17, 2004

Godel and his walking companion

In the summer of 1942, while German U-boats roamed in wolf packs off the coast of Maine, residents in the small coastal town of Blue Hill were alarmed by the sight of a solitary figure, hands clasped behind his back, hunched over like a comma with his eyes fixed on the ground, making his way along the shore in a seemingly endless midnight stroll. Those who encountered the man were struck by his deep scowl and thick German accent. Speculation mounted that he was a German spy giving secret signals to enemy warships. The dark stranger, however, was no German spy. He was Kurt Gödel, the greatest logician of all time, a beacon in the intellectual landscape of the last thousand years, and the prey he sought was not American ships bound for Britain but rather the so-called continuum hypothesis, a conjecture made by the mathematician Georg Cantor about the number of points on a line.

From a wonderful essay by Palle Yourgrau on the friendship between Gödel and “his walking companion” and great admirer, Albert Einstein. In their footsteps, writes Yourgrau, “can be heard an echo of the zeitgeist, a clue to the secret of the great and terrible 20th century, a century that, like the 17th, may well go down in history as one of genius.”

1 comment:

Dilip D'Souza said...

Amit, have you read Doug Hofstadter's Godel, Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid? A great book.