W V Smith of BOAP.org fame returns with some reflections on great thinking and the dangers of libraries.
Years ago, I spent a little time at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. The Institute was founded in 1930 and is probably most famous for taking in the great thinkers fleeing what was happening in Germany. It was criticized by some as a kind of drowning pool for intellect because of the designed isolation.
Anyway, you heard stories. This may have circulated and I just haven’t heard about it. It was from an acquaintance who was a number theorist and invited to the Institute by Einstein. Since Einstein died in 1955, the story was old when I heard it. Einstein of course was a physicist and my friend wondered why Einstein would ask him to come there. Einstein of course was just doing the guy a favor, giving him a job until he could get on his feet (having just come over from the old country).
The story involves Kurt Godel, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. Godel was famous for many things, most of them too abstract to explain here, but I’ll name a few: the completeness proof of 1st order logic, the incompleteness theorems of arithmetic, the proof of consistency for the continuum hypothesis, and others. Godel dabbled in physics as well and he and Einstein were friends though Einstein was considerably older. Godel would have been in his 40s at the time this story.
Around the old institute building there was a path (I walked it once, it’s pretty long) that Godel would occasionally wander around when in thinking mode. My friend said he encountered Godel on these walks occasionally. He said it was a bit like meeting a zombie (not his words precisely).
Anyway late one afternoon, my source, Einstein and Godel were walking home from the Institute together. They were talking about work Einstein was doing and Einstein looked over at Godel and asked him what he was currently doing. Godel said he was collecting all the manuscripts of Leibniz’s work in calculus (you have to understand that Godel could have gotten practically anything he asked for). This puzzled both the other parties, since of course this was by no means any sort of advanced mathematics. Einstein asked, so Kurt, what are doing with them. Godel said in somewhat hushed tones, that he was collecting them to compare their readings. Why? was the response. My source was completely taken aback by the response: because in libraries, at night, misprint demons come out, and make small changes in manuscripts and books, to confuse us. Godel wanted the manuscripts to actually form a kind of critical text of what Leibniz actually wrote. Godel’s companions were silenced.
While at the time I thought Godel was a bit nuts, I now tend to sympathize with his point of view. Libraries are dangerous things.