Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Gödel and the Constitution II: The Lost Morgenstern Document

The great mathematician Kurt Gödel thought he found a contradiction in the U.S. Constitution. He came upon it in 1947, while preparing for the questions he would be asked at his citizenship hearing, and became obsessed with it to the point where it seemed likely to torpedo his chances at citizenship. Gödel's friends, Albert Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern joined forces to prevent this from happening.

Until November 2008, there was a major obstacle to taking this story seriously as history. We know that Gödel had a citizenship hearing in 1947. Judge Philip Forman presided and Einstein and Morgenstern were there as witnesses. But the rest of the story depended completely on hearsay.

All participants at the hearing have been dead for 30 years. We had no first-hand account of the hearing from any of them. According to John Dawson, Gödel's very capable and thorough biographer, Morgenstern claimed to have written up an account for publication. But Dawson couldn't find it. To me that meant fuhgeddaboudit. But on Nov 23, 2008, much to my own surprise, I found the Lost Morgenstern Document.

By coincidence, I've written a novel that revolves around the serendipitous finding of lost Gödel documents. In The God Proof, the main character is sitting in his office when a woman shows up carrying a briefcase with $20,000 in cash and two long missing Gödel notebooks. The woman is famous, rich, mysterious, beautiful and in trouble. Unfortunately, that's not how I found the Lost Morgenstern Document. A shame, too, since I could use the cash.

My real-life discovery of the Lost Morgenstern Document started with Wikipedia's article on Kurt Gödel. I'd revised its account of the citizenship hearing to stick to the facts as related in Dawson's biography. While Googling around, I hit upon a page that struck me as odd.

At first glance, it was Yet Another Retelling of the citizenship hearing, a bit more shaky than most. It described itself as an account of "Gödel's 1948 Trenton interview with an official of the Immigration Service." The hearing did take place in Trenton, but it was in front of a U.S. District Court Judge. And while Gödel took his citizenship oath in 1948, the hearing took place on 5 December 1947.

I'm not sure why I kept on reading. Possibly I wanted to check out how another writer handled the "lost document" trope. The "false document" method is a very powerful way to tell a story, but hard to do right. On one hand, it takes work to make the fictional document seem authentic. On the other hand, for the story to read well, the fictional document has to avoid the gaps, detours and general clumsiness of real-life documentation.

This writer was very convincing, but his story-telling was awkward. Which struck me as strange. Good yarnsmanship is not rare. Less common is the ability to catch the voice of someone like Morgenstern. This writer had Morgenstern nailed. What if the writer was Morgenstern?

Going back to the account, I looked for three signs of genuineness. First, if this was the Lost Morgenstern Document, I'd expect the writer to be perfect on any facts that Morgenstern would know. And, except for that screwy first sentence, the writer knew what Morgenstern knew. But the opening sentence used the third person and was outside of the quote marks. It could have been an introduction, added by another writer.

The second sign was detail not in previous accounts. This writer had lots of it. The writer said that he drove and that he picked up Gödel first. Gödel sat in back. He then drove to Mercer Street to pick up Einstein. The hearing was in a "big room". Gödel sat between Einstein and Morgenstern. And so on.

The third sign was the clincher. I looked for something which was unexpected but which seemed "right" in hindsight. And I found something new in the story which, once I thought about it, fit perfectly.

None of the retellings of the citizenship hearing story make the contest of intellects between Einstein and Gödel sound right. The Einstein in the hearsay versions was wishy-washy, the affable Einstein of the newsreels. The Einstein in the Lost Morgenstern Document was the real Einstein, brilliant and quite capable of ruthlessness when he thought it was important and in a good cause.

In my next post, I'll tell the story of Einstein and the Gödel psych-out.