Kurt Gödel and the Institute


Institute for Advanced Study
Photo: Cliff Moore

John von Neumann, pictured in 1952 with the IAS Machine prototype computer, had been one of the first to recognize the implications of Gödel's work.
Courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Study 

Gödel and Einstein were often seen walking together to and from the Institute during the early 1950s.
Courtesy of Dorothy Morgenstern Thomas

Gödel and Einstein at the Institute
Courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Study

Gödel at the Institute in the 1970s
Courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Study

Kurt Gödel was among one of the first Members at the newly-founded Institute for Advanced Study in 1933-34. After two additional stays in the 1930s, he returned to the Institute in 1940 as a permanent Member, and then was appointed to the Faculty in 1953.

As one of the world’s leading centers for theoretical research and intellectual inquiry, the Institute offers scholars the freedom to pursue work that will make significant contributions to a broad range of fields in the sciences and humanities. Gödel was one of many brilliant minds who came to the Institute in the years after its founding in 1930 -- including luminaries such as Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, Hetty Goldman, Hermann Weyl, Oswald Veblen and Erwin Panofsky -- who helped to shape the Institute's early development, including the scholarship and study pursued there.

During his time at the Institute, Gödel maintained a somewhat solitary existence but published numerous scientific papers, including "The Consistency of the Axiom of Choice and of the Generalized Continuum-Hypothesis," "An example of a new Type of Cosmological Solutions of Einstein's Field Equations of Gravitation" and "Rotating Universes in General Relativity Theory."

In the 1940s, he developed close friendships with fellow Faculty members Albert Einstein and John von Neumann. Von Neumann had been among the first to recognize the implications and significance of Gödel's work. When von Neumann, who was lecturing on David Hilbert’s work at the time, read Gödel’s 1931 paper, he cancelled what was left of his course and began lecturing on Gödel’s findings.

Gödel and Einstein

Gödel and Einstein formed a special bond during their time in Princeton. The two men were often seen conversing in German, walking to and from the Institute, engaged in discussion about relativity, including Gödel’s rotating universe model, among other topics. It was Einstein who suggested Gödel for the prestigious Einstein Award, which he received in 1951 jointly with Harvard mathematical physicist Julian Schwinger, a move designed by Einstein to bolster Gödel’s morale at a time when he had been ill.

When Gödel applied for naturalization as an American citizen in 1948, it was Einstein who, together with Princeton University mathematician Oskar Morgenstern, accompanied Gödel to his interview with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

On September 13, 1971, Morgenstern recorded the following memory of Gödel’s 1948 Trenton interview with an official of the Immigration Service.

“[Gödel] rather excitedly told me that in looking at the Constitution, to his distress, he had found some inner contradictions and that he could show how in a perfectly legal manner it would be possible for somebody to become a dictator and set up a Fascist regime never intended by those who drew up the Constitution. I told him that it was most unlikely that such events would ever occur, even assuming that he was right, which of course I doubted.

But he was persistent and so we had many talks about this particular point. I tried to persuade him that he should avoid bringing up such matters at the examination before the court in Trenton, and I also told Einstein about it: he was horrified that such an idea had occurred to Gödel, and he also told him he should not worry about these things nor discuss that matter.

Many months went by and finally the date for the examination in Trenton came. On that particular day, I picked up Gödel in my car. He sat in the back and then we went to pick up Einstein at his house on Mercer Street, and from there we drove to Trenton. While we were driving, Einstein turned around a little and said, “Now Gödel, are you really well prepared for this examination?” Of course, this remark upset Gödel tremendously, which was exactly what Einstein intended and he was greatly amused when he saw the worry on Gödel’s face.

When we came to Trenton, we were ushered into a big room, and while normally the witnesses are questioned separately from the candidate, because of Einstein’s appearance, an exception was made and all three of us were invited to sit down together, Gödel, in the center. The examiner first asked Einstein and then me whether we thought Gödel would make a good citizen. We assured him that this would certainly be the case, that he was a distinguished man, etc.

And then he turned to Gödel and said, Now, Mr. Gödel, where do you come from?
Gödel: Where I come from? Austria.
The examiner: What kind of government did you have in Austria?
Gödel: It was a republic, but the constitution was such that it finally was changed into a dictatorship.
The examiner: Oh! This is very bad. This could not happen in this country.
Gödel: Oh, yes, I can prove it.

So of all the possible questions, just that critical one was asked by the examiner. Einstein and I were horrified during this exchange; the examiner was intelligent enough to quickly quieten Gödel and broke off the examination at this point, greatly to our relief.”