Sunday, November 30, 2008

Gödel and the Constitution I: The Fatal Contradiction

On 5 December 1947, Kurt Gödel, the man Time magazine called the last century's greatest mathematician, had his citizenship hearing. One of Gödel's witnesses was the man the same issue of Time called the century's greatest person, Albert Einstein. The other witness was Oskar Morgenstern, co-inventor of game theory.

At the hearing, the prospective citizen has to answer a few basic questions. Not a big deal, you'd think, for the second greatest mind in the world, especially when he's got number one there to vouch for him. But Gödel, for better and for worse, was not like other people. In mathematics, Gödel could do the impossible. In the rest of life, Gödel had a way of making the easy difficult. Sixty years later, Gödel's citizenship hearing is legendary. Now, in 2008, decades after all the participants in that meeting have died, there's an important discovery about it.

Uniquely among mathematicians, Gödel was known for surprises. Most mathematicians prove things already believed to be true. Occasionally mathematicians prove things that other mathematicians weren't one hundred percent sure about. Rarely does a mathematician prove something most of the others thought must be false. And no mathematician had made a career of that kind of proof until Kurt Gödel came along.

When it came to this citizenship hearing, Einstein and Morgenstern were in no mood for surprises. So when Gödel told them he'd found a contradiction in the U.S. Constitution, one that would allow the U.S. to be turned into a dictatorship, they told him to forget it. But Gödel seemed to feel the need to share his discovery. If Gödel started expounding on defects in the U.S. Constitution to the wrong kind of judge, Einstein and Morgenstern knew there could be trouble.

In the decades since 1947, the tale of what happened at the hearing was told and retold, each time with differing incident and dialog. Certainly, there was a citizenship hearing. Probably Gödel had some kind of proof about the US constitution, one which had Morgenstern and Einstein worried. More than that I didn't think we'd ever know.

Not that there weren’t lots of stories. When I was a grad student, Gödel was still alive. In the halls and offices, I heard many a tale of Gödel's eccentric behavior. Over the years, I’ve learned that every one of those stories was unfounded and probably false.

I expected that none of the various recountings of the citizenship hearing was to be trusted. Faculty room yarnsmanship had "improved" them to the point where they were useless. I also expected that the hearsay versions omitted a lot of important details.

Now, to my surprise, we can know. I have discovered Morgenstern's original account of Gödel's citizenship hearing, lost to scholarship for decades. How I found it, I'll describe in my next post.

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