Godel, Einstein, Smith

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.


  1. john willis says:

    There is an interesting story about Einstein and the Institute with a mormon twist.

    Henry Eyring Sr.( father of the Hnery Eyring of the current first Presidencey) was a chemistry professor at Princeton in the 30’s and 40’s when Einstein was at the Insitute. The story goes that Eyring and Einstien were walking together and saw a test plot of soy beans (which were some what of a new crop at that time).

    Eyring asked Einstein was the plants were and Einstien not suprisingly didn’t know. Eyring later commented that this showed that Einstein didn’t know beans.

  2. That is a great anecdote. Misprint demons. They have plagued me my entire life.

  3. Very cool. Thanks.

  4. Misprint Demons are cousins with the Misplacement Spirits – those mischeivous pranksters that like to hide my keys and my watch.

  5. What is crazy is that–out of an entire library (or body of literature on a subject)–that Godel noticed subtle misprints. I’m intrigued.

  6. I got your back there, B.Russ.

  7. Eric, I’m not sure Godel noticed the misprints in anything particularly. You have to understand that (based on other stories I heard) Godel was, how shall I put it? An introspective guy. In other words, theory may have preceded action.

  8. Godel, aside from being one of the great Mathematical minds of the 20th century, was also certifiably nuts; probably some sort of Schizophrenia. He starved himself to death because he was convinced people were poisoning his food. It’s a sad tale.

  9. I remember reading, or talking to someone a couple decades ago about Godel. Someone asked him about time travel. What if you could go back in time. Suppose you went back and murdered your own grandfather, say. He responded something like, “couldn’t happen. It would create a paradox. Logic is powerful.” I like that a lot for some reason.
    Yeah he did get worse in his last couple years. People tried to convince him that it wasn’t happening. Too bad. He was a brilliant light. If the Nobel were properly done, there’d be a prize for him. But they don’t do math.

  10. WVS, I recently finished Rebecca Goldstein’s wonderful and sympathetic biography of Gödel. I’ve decided most genius is a kind of madness. She describes the long daily walks he and Einstein took and I wondered what they talked about. I took away from the book that he felt isolated and unappreciated in his department and such isolation contributed to his feelings of paranoia. Thanks for this post, because I believe the misprint demons are real. I only have to read something I’ve written the day after and things have been changed, words added and taken out, and the grammar destroyed.

  11. #10 There’s something stuck in moderation about the fear thing. Also, you have only to read the post to see that it was effected by the forces Godel was fighting. It is a never ending war. Maybe from the preexistence. And Steve Evans made up the title to this. Not my fault.

  12. Steve Evans says:

    Hey, that title was pretty good!!

  13. Cynthia L. says:

    Nothing to add except that I love reading anything about Gödel and anything about paradoxes.

  14. I have, considerably less impressively, a family connection to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. My favorite story about Godel is how he would schedule meetings with various people and then, without fail, not be there. When asked why he bothered scheduling such meetings which he invariably missed, he said something to the effect of “If I know where they are, I can be assured of avoiding them.”

  15. Godel is known to have compared new and older editions of Leibniz, because he believed that a conspiracy had [mis]edited and suppressed some of Leibniz’ works. It’s mentioned I think in Hao Wang’s memoir, and I believe he even says that he was impressed by some of Godel’s evidence–without, however, committing himself to believing in the theory.

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