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When Einstein Walked with Gödel

Excursions to the Edge of Thought

By Jim Holt
15-minute read
Audio available
When Einstein Walked with Gödel by Jim Holt

When Einstein Walked with Gödel (2018) is an excursion through both the fabric of our reality and the limits of scientific imagination. Combining math and physics with history and philosophy, it sheds light on some of the most important scientific theories of the last three centuries – and examines the turbulent lives of the geniuses who conceived them. 

  • Laypeople who’d like to understand more about math and physics
  • Critical thinkers interested in the history and philosophy of science
  • Anyone who’d like to leave a big impression at their next cocktail party

Jim Holt is an American journalist and essayist whose work focuses on popular science. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, and Slate. He has published several books, including Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes and the New York Times best seller Why Does the World Exist?

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When Einstein Walked with Gödel

Excursions to the Edge of Thought

By Jim Holt
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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When Einstein Walked with Gödel by Jim Holt
Synopsis

When Einstein Walked with Gödel (2018) is an excursion through both the fabric of our reality and the limits of scientific imagination. Combining math and physics with history and philosophy, it sheds light on some of the most important scientific theories of the last three centuries – and examines the turbulent lives of the geniuses who conceived them. 

Key idea 1 of 9

Toward the end of his life, Albert Einstein struck up an unlikely friendship with the young logician Kurt Gödel.

Of all the unique characters in the history of science, perhaps no one is as iconic as the German-born physicist Albert Einstein. Nearly anyone would recognize an image of the eccentric genius with the wild hair. 

In 1905, while still holding down a day job at a patent office in Switzerland, Einstein published four short papers that forever changed how we understand the world. In the first one, he showed that light comes in discrete particles, later dubbed photons. In the second, he finally proved that atoms were real and showed how to calculate the seemingly random way they move around in gas or liquids. In the third paper, he introduced his theory of relativity, completely upending our notions about space and time. And in the last one, he coined his famous formula E=mc2, illuminating the relationship between mass and energy. 

These papers were undoubtedly extraordinary achievements, and they shot Einstein to world fame. But few people know that Einstein spent the last years of his life in isolation, sneered at by the rest of the scientific community. 

Here’s the key message: Toward the end of his life, Albert Einstein struck up an unlikely friendship with the young logician Kurt Gödel.

In 1933, with his greatest discoveries behind him, Einstein fled from Germany to the US and settled in Princeton, New Jersey. At the time, his star in the scientific community had already begun to fade. This was partially due to his opposition to quantum mechanics, a hot new theory that sought to explain the movement of subatomic particles. Einstein regarded the implications of quantum theory as too “spooky” to be true, alienating himself from much of the scientific community at the time. 

And so he spent his days going on long, solitary walks around the Princeton campus. After a while though, he found an unlikely walking companion: the much younger Kurt Gödel. The genius logician Gödel was highly regarded for his incompleteness theorems, with which he had shown that no logical system is 100 percent airtight. With his ideas, Gödel challenged the notion that humans could ever achieve something like absolute knowledge. 

While Einstein’s star was fading, Gödel’s star was shining brighter than ever. In terms of personality, too, the two men were polar opposites. Einstein was cheerful and gregarious, whereas Gödel was serious and pessimistic. Even by the standards of quirky old Einstein, Gödel was a strange fellow. It was rumored that he lived off a diet of baby food, butter, and laxatives. 

Despite their differences, Einstein and Gödel shared a deep intellectual connection. They both believed that mathematics was not just some abstract game of symbols, but a discipline deeply rooted in physical reality. This wasn’t a very popular opinion at the time. Gödel also shared Einstein's skepticism of quantum mechanics. And on the matter of time, Gödel took Einstein’s famous relativity theory even further than its originator. We’ll see how in the next blink. 

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