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

Stephen Budiansky
W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Daniel J. Curtin
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Kurt Gödel was one of the most outstanding logicians of the 20th century, many would say of all time. He was also a curious character, logical and precise in his work, but often paranoid and even delusional in other parts of his life. He lived through times of great upheaval in the world
and in mathematical logic.
Many writers have delved into Gödel’s logical and relativity work. A reader wishing a biography with a heavy dose of mathematical details could choose John Dawson’s book Logical Dilemmas: The Life and Work of Kurt Gödel.
Budiansky’s biography, however, is designed for a non-mathematical audience. He touches lightly on logical theories, concentrating instead on Gödel’s life and the environments in which he lived and worked. The biographer does a good job of setting the scene. He gives us background on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the city of Brünn (now Brno) where Gödel was born, Vienna and its university life, and finally the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, where Gödel spent the last 40 years of his life.
Budiansky discusses the people in Gödel’s life: his family, his teachers, his wife, and his rare but close friends, including Albert Einstein.
The author covers the rise of nationalism and anti-Semitism in Austria and in the Austrian universities. Though not himself Jewish, Gödel had many friends and colleagues who were, and his appearance of only lukewarm opposition to this trend ruptured some long-time friendships. In retrospect his reaction seems mostly to reflect his political naiveté.
Gödel’s mental difficulties, especially his hypochondria started early and caused him many problems. He set out for the US in 1933 and again in 1935. In both cases he turned back several times claiming illness before actually going. Once more he dithered about returning to the US as Austria became part of the Third Reich and WW2 began. Eventually, he and his wife made an escape through Russia by way of Siberia, then to Japan and San Fransisco. The excitement of this journey contrasts greatly with his peaceful life in Princeton. Here he enjoyed academic acclaim, some pleasant social and intellectual activities, including many long walks with Einstein and visits from his family and small circle of friends. Still, the last years of his life were blighted by growing paranoia and delusion. He was convinced the Institute was going to fire him for lack of production, despite official letters from the Director assuring him otherwise. Finally in despair and unwilling to eat, partly out of fear his food was poisoned, he died of starvation in 1978.  Budiansky gives an engaging account of the details of Gödel’s life and times, including the historical, intellectual, and personal context. Even a mathematical reader will find much of interest.


Dan Curtin is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Northern Kentucky University. His scholarly activity has largely been in the History of Mathematics, especially the development of Algebra from the Renaissance to the rise of the Calculus.