Sunday, April 26, 2009

It Can't Happen Here

By Kathy Roberts:

My husband's reading a book called "Pi in the Sky: Counting, Thinking, and Being", by John D. Barrow. He showed me a passage about the famous mathematician/philosopher, Kurt Godel, applying for US citizenship. Godel needed to study the American Constitution for this and have two people to vouch for his character. So he brought Albert Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern with him to the interview. But they were a bit concerned about him. Here's the passage....

Einstein tells the story of how he and Morgenstern became increasingly worried about Godel's instability and lack of common sense in the run-up to this simple citizenship interview. Apparently, Godel called Morgenstern on the eve of the interview to tell him that he had discovered a logical loophole in the framing of the Constitution which would enable a dictatorship to be created. Morgenstern told him that this was absurdly unlikely and under no circumstances should he even mention the possibility at his interview the following day. When the day of the interview came, Einstein and Morgenstern tried to distract Godel from thinking too much about what was in store by generating a steady stream of jokes and stories, hoping that he would be content to turn up, mouth a few rote answers and pleasant platitudes, and depart with his citizenship. John Casti's account of what actually transpired at the interview confirms the distinguished witnesses' worst fears:

"At the interview itself the judge was suitably impressed by the sterling character and public personas of Godel's witnesses, and broke with tradition by inviting them to sit in during the exam. The judge began by saying to Godel, 'Up to now you have held German citizenship.' Godel corrected this slight affront, noting that he was Austrian. Unfazed, the judge continued, 'Anyhow, it was under an evil dictatorship...but fortunately that's not possible in America.' With the magic word dictatorship out of the bag, Godel was not to be denied, crying out, 'On the contrary, I know how that can happen. And I can prove it!' By all accounts it took the efforts of not only Einstein and Morgenstern but also the judge to calm Godel down and prevent him from going into a detailed and lengthy discourse about his 'discovery'. Fortunately, things were smoothed over. Kurt Godel did become an American citizen."

Another passage about Godel makes me think Joseph Heller had him in mind when he wrote a certain scene in "Catch 22": "Colleagues tell how, if anyone telephoned to arrange to see [Godel], he would readily make an appointment but would never be there at the appointed time and place. When asked on one occasion why he made such definite arrangements if he did not want to meet the people concerned, he replied that his procedure was the only one that guaranteed that he would not meet his visitor." There's an officer in "Catch 22" who makes appointments to meet people in his office, but who always leaves just before they arrive.

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