I’m working on a new play about Kurt Gödel. Here’s an outline:
During the early 1940s, while most of the world’s greatest physicists and mathematicians were confined to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, racing against the Germans to create the first atom bomb, there were two notable exceptions: Kurt Gödel and Albert Einstein. Einstein was not invited due to fears about his socialist sympathies, and Gödel because he was considered mentally unstable. These two remained in Princeton, two anomalies in an age that was quickly leaving them behind. While the race to make the bomb was reaching its crescendo, Einstein and Gödel were strolling through the streets of Princeton, discussing philosophy, relativity, and God. What emerged from these discussions was so extraordinary and unexpected that the world of physics has, to this day, done everything it can to avoid confronting it.
Kurt Gödel was the greatest logician since Aristotle, and, almost as remarkable, the only person Einstein considered an equal. During his later years at The Institute For Advanced Study, Einstein declared that he only went to work at all anymore to have the pleasure of walking home with Kurt Gödel. What set these two men apart, and crystallized their friendship, was their opposition to the positivist paradigm shift that was tearing the world of science up from its foundations. Despite the vehement opposition of these two great thinkers, the belief that science cannot tell us what things are, but only how they work, today still dominates our scientific worldview.
Few people are aware that this immense paradigm shift ever took place, and fewer still have pondered what it means for us today. My goal in writing the play Gödel is to bring this extraordinary moment in science into dramatic focus, and to illustrate its meaning through the life, beliefs, and personal struggles of one extraordinary individual. Kurt Gödel refused to accept that mathematics and physics could not describe the actual world, that the beauty of mathematical entities were not real things, and that there was no such thing as God, all at a time when the rest of the scientific world (other than his friend Einstein) were dismissing such things as absurd.
Gödel opens with three physicists, Julius, John, and Richard (loosely based on Oppenheimer, Von Neumann, and Feynman) sitting around a table at The Los Alamos National Laboratory, working, drinking coffee and chatting. Richard abstractedly mentions that it’s a shame that Einstein isn’t there with them, to which Julius replies that “Einstein is completely cuckoo.” Talk about Einstein leads them to his new best friend, Kurt Gödel, who all agree is even more cuckoo than Einstein. The scene ends with the melancholic John declaring: “Well, they may be nuts, but then again, there they are, strolling about Princeton and talking about God, and here we are, locked up in Los Alamos, trying to make a bomb.” This sets the tone for the rest of the play, which will alternate between Gödel’s chats with Einstein, including his first ideas about what relativity might reveal about the reality of time, flashbacks to Gödel’s life before Princeton, including his time in Vienna during the Nazi buildup, and the progress in Los Alamos toward testing the first atom bomb.
As Gödel faces overwhelming resistance to his ideas, we watch his mental and physical health deteriorate. A condition that had its beginnings while he worked on his first great idea, The Incompleteness Theorems, degenerates into a full-blown eating disorder, accompanied by increasing paranoia and hypochondria. But he finishes his work on relativity in time for Einstein’s seventieth birthday, and what he reveals shocks even his friend: Gödel had mathematically proven that if the principals of relativity hold, then time does not exist. Einstein declares that Gödel “has managed to kill time in six pages.” Everyone else, however, refuses to accept his conclusions, and Gödel, unable to stand up to the blatant and sometimes even viscous rejection of his ideas, retreats farther and farther into his own private world of suffering and doubt. Einstein’s death only worsens his sense of alienation, and Gödel begins having hallucinations, hearing voices, and finally appeals to a friend to help him end his life.
Weighing only sixty-five pounds, Kurt Gödel, the man who had so eloquently and passionately defended the reality of ideas, who had penned a logical proof for the existence of God, and who had managed to make time disappear, himself disappeared. He died almost entirely ostracized by the academic world in which he lived, and utterly unknown outside of it. And yet, to this day, no one has been able to prove Kurt Gödel wrong. To illustrate, a figure as great as Stephen Hawking actually resorted to attempting to pass off an ad hoc law of the universe in an unsuccessful effort to avoid Gödel’s conclusions about relativity.
I first encountered Kurt Gödel while reading William Barrett’s Irrational Man. Reading about his accomplishments it seemed absurd that I had never heard of him. I felt I needed to know more, which led me to Palle Yourgrau’s A Wold Without Time, and later to John W. Dawson’s Logical Dilemmas and Hao Wang’s Reflections on Kurt Gödel. While reading these works I realized that Kurt Gödel was in a sense the last great Platonist, at a time when the Platonic ideal, which had formed the basis for Western science for two thousand years, was being overthrown. Kurt Gödel was essentially caught in the middle of one of the most dramatic moments in the history of science. He came out on the losing end. But his voice may yet be heard. It is to this end that I decided to write the play Gödel. If we are able to fathom what his life and work truly meant, our understanding of science, time, and reality might never be the same.