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

Norton. May 2021. 368p. ISBN 9781324005445. $30. BIOG
When Kurt Gödel (1906–78) was four years old, his family called him Herr Warum (“Mr. Why”) because he asked so many questions. Einstein referred to him as “the greatest logician since Aristotle.” But in 1971, at age 71, Gödel starved himself to death; he had been overtaken by an ingrained fear that someone was poisoning his food, the culmination of decades of mental illness. Between these two poles, the theoretical mathematician lived out a life of stunning triumphs and tragic unshakeable neurosis, as historian and journalist Budiansky recounts in this remarkable biography, which spans from Gödel’s childhood in Austria, to his immigration to the United States and his research at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. A singular virtue of this well-researched and well-written book is that Budiansky takes his subject’s life as seriously as his mathematical work. The volume includes photographs of people in Gödel’s life—from his wife Adele to his close friends within the Vienna Circle, such as Moritz Schlick—which helps to paint a complete life portrait.
VERDICT Readers shouldn’t be discouraged by the complexity of Gödel’s mathematics; this is the first major biography of the brilliant yet tragic figure and, in all respects, a first-rate one.
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