Saturday, July 22, 2017

Entering the strange world of Kurt Godel

The picture below is of Godel's rotating universe. It represents an exact solution to Einstein's gravitational field equations and has the strange property of closed timelike curves (i.e. one can travel into the past!). This mathematical solution was found by Kurt Godel while he was employed by the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

I think I first encountered this picture in my final undergraduate year in the classic book, The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time by Hawking and Ellis, while working on a research project in general relativity.

Godel's universe is just one example of the fascinating science and stories recounted in the book
Who Got Einstein's Office? Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study by Ed Regis, first published 30 years ago.

I only read the book this past week and loved it. It is a captivating blend of science, mathematics, personalities, history, philosophy, humorous anecdotes, gossip, eccentricities ...
I was so captivated that I read it during two situations I would not normally read something so "heavy": during a long flight [normally I watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory or Upper Middle Bogan [need to laugh!] or recently a Warren Buffett documentary... sorry better not mention that again...], and during "down time" in the evening after a busy day.

Regis nicely describes the continuum hypothesis, Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) "paradox" in quantum theory, von Neumann machines, cellular automata, the Bourbaki seminar, parity violation, the solar neutrino problem, fractals, the stability of matter, ...

The personalities covered include Godel, Einstein, Herman Weyl, John von Neumann, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Freeman Dyson, T.D. Lee,  C.N. Yang, Andre Weil, John Bahcall, Stephen Wolfram, Ed Witten, .....

It is amazing how much Regis packs into less than 300 pages (in a paperback).

The tragic mental health problems of Godel are described in a sensitive manner.

One pathetic story concerns the endless quibbles of T.D. Lee and C.N. Yang.
(Aside: They actually did their Nobel Prize winning work on parity violation at the IAS. This is in contrast to the countless Nobel laureates who at one time have been affiliated with the IAS but did not do their prize work there.)
Lee and Yang (or is it Yang and Lee?) argued constantly about the order in which their names should be listed, not just as co-authors, and at the Nobel ceremony, but even in newspaper and magazine articles about them. Furthermore, it is crazy to read the wildly different and self-serving accounts of certain concrete events. Great scientists are all too human ......

Some people consider the book is a bit of a "hatchet" job and has a mocking tone that paints the IAS in a poor light and questions its value and existence. I would not agree. I think it does show that the IAS has produced a lot of important scholarship. Regis does raise some important questions I mention below. But, I did think that he did refer to the IAS as "the One True Platonic Heaven" too many times.

Regis is implicitly critical of the fact that there is very little interaction between different research groups and disciplines within IAS. However, there is one important story he missed: when Freeman Dyson and the number theorist Hugh Montgomery were introduced at tea at the IAS and they made a connection between random matrix theory (quantum physics) and zeros of the Riemann zeta function.

Some questions the book raises for me include:

Can you really "manage" genius?

How do you create an institutional environment that increases the likelihood of truly great discoveries and scholarship?

What is the best way to hire "great" people?

What is a good mix of young and old staff?

What is a good mix of permanent faculty, postdocs, and short term senior visitors?

When is the absence of students in a research institute good or bad?

When is the absence of experimentalists in an institution bad/good for theoretical physics?

How do you foster a healthy synergy between pure mathematics and theoretical physics?

How might you foster some constructive interaction between distinct disciplines: philosophy, mathematics, theoretical physics, economics, history, ....?

Here is Feynman's perspective (partly quoted in the book):
I don't believe I can really do without teaching. The reason is, I have to have something so that when I don't have any ideas and I'm not getting anywhere I can say to myself, "At least I'm living; at least I'm doing something; I am making some contribution" -- it's just psychological. 
When I was at Princeton in the 1940s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don't get any ideas for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they are not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come. 
Nothing happens because there's not enough real activity and challenge: You're not in contact with the experimental guys. You don't have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing!
Governments have less and less interest in "research for its own sake" and "without constraints" [hallmarks of the IAS]. However, there is an increasing number of generous and wealthy philanthropic organisations who are very interested. These are important questions for them.

Although I lived in Princeton for four years around the time the book was being written I only recall going inside "the Brain Farm" [as a friend called it] once, and that was for a music concert. Nevertheless, I spent many pleasant hours walking, jogging, bird watching, and skiing in the beautiful woods located behind the IAS.

I thank Ben Powell for a conversation about the IAS, stimulating me to remember I had inherited a copy of the book from my parents.

I welcome thoughts on any of the questions and any good IAS stories...


  1. PLease add , when will rigour triumph over metrics in universities.


    Chien-Shiung Wu of Columbia Uni a meticulously accurate experimental physicist who was in demand to put new theories to the test.

    Dr. Lee and Dr. Yang were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957 for their theoretical work in this area. Dr. Wu did not share the prize, but the playwright Clare Boothe Luce said at the time, ''When Dr. Wu knocked out that principle of parity, she established the principle of parity between men and women.''.

  3. On the point of managing intelligent folk and getting to work harmoniously together, I recommend reading "The Idea Factory" by Jon Gertner:

    There is much to be learned by how this was done at Bell Labs. Google is currently attempting to emulate their model.

  4. On "How do you create an institutional environment that increases the likelihood of truly great discoveries and scholarship?"
    There's many things involved, but I'm sure a necessary condition is *keeping office politics low*. Again, there's many things involved to keep politics low, but I'm sure a necessary condition is small #hops in information flow.