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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Jan/Feb 2019 > Kurt Gödel and the romance of logic

Kurt Gödel and the romance of logic

The great theory of this emaciated genius of philosophy defeated the finest minds of the 20th century—and rescued the idea that there are truths that humans can never prove
Mathematician Kurt Gödel, right, and physicist Albert Einstein, left, taking a walk in Princeton, 1954

We are sometimes inclined to make celebrities out of intellectuals despite—or perhaps precisely because of—their producing work we can never hope to understand. Bertrand Russell’s oddly old-fashioned dress sense and aristocratic bearing remain familiar features on the cultural landscape, as are Albert Einstein’s friendly face and shock of white hair. Indeed, such was the popularity of the aging Einstein that he was, decades after coming up with relativity theory, offered the (largely ceremonial) presidency of Israel. The elder Russell, meanwhile, was invited on to radio and television to give his opinion on everything from communism to what kind of lipstick women should wear. The reason he was invited on to the media was not, of course, that he was an authority on these subjects, but that he had, in his younger days, written abstruse things on mathematical logic and the philosophy of mathematics. The most notable of these, Principia Mathematica—in which he and his co-author Alfred North Whitehead put forward an axiomatic system of logic upon which they hoped to build, first arithmetic and then the whole of mathematics—is considered formidably difficult even by experts in the field.

The logician and philosopher Kurt Gödel passes the Einstein/ Russell test, in doing work whose importance is beyond argument, but can also seem beyond comprehension as well. If you wanted to make the case that he should join them as a cele- brated public figure, you could point out that among his work is an important contribution to the interpretation of Einstein’s relativity theory, and that he pulled the rug out from under the project on which Russell spilled most sweat. And Gödel’s advocate would start out with more name-recognition to build on than you might imagine. In 1999, when Time magazine conducted a survey of its readers to determine the 20 most influential thinkers of the 20th century (a poll topped by Einstein), Gödel, who has often been described as “the most important logician since Aristotle,” came ninth—ahead of Keynes, Watson and Crick of DNA fame and world wide web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee.

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In Prospect’s January/February double issue: A host of writers and personalities explain what they think will be the most important thing we need to learn in the new year. From Justin Welby arguing for new emphasis on learning to forgive and Lord Neuberger on the importance of a free judiciary to Hannah Fry on AI and Cathy Newman on what happens next for #MeToo—Prospect has it all. Elsewhere in the issue: Fintan O’Toole looks at Brexit from an Irish perspective, Wendell Steavenson dishes the dirt on what really happens to the waste you want to recycle, Frank Close questions why—half a century after our last visit—we’ve not been back to the Moon. Also, Michael Blastland argues that we’re ignoring the upsides of having an alcoholic drink and Clive James explores the life of Philip Larkin.