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Journey to the Edge of Reason - Stephen Budiansky ***

 

Compared with the sciences, mathematics can seem relatively short on interesting characters. There's no doubt that the subject of Stephen Budiansky's biography - Kurt Gödel was an engaging subject, from his effective shattering of the certainties of the mathematical system to his increasing oddity in his later life, but perhaps surprisingly this claims to be the first significant biography of Gödel.

Budiansky gives us plenty on the context of Gödel's work and life - and a brief exploration of Gödel's incompleteness theorems (though their nature means that it's hard to give more than a faint impression of how they do what they do). Unfortunately, though, this is not a particularly accessible biography.

With many scientific/mathematical biographies, poor accessibility can be down to a lack of context, with too much focus on the detailed complexities of the science or the maths. Here, though, the issue is the reverse. There is far too much context, so much so that Gödel often gets lost amongst all the detail. After a few introductory pages giving a flash forward to Gödel's death, the first real chapter illustrates this all too well - there is so much material focussing on Austria as it was when Gödel was born that we don’t meet the young Gödel until page 41.

Similarly, later on, the book can feel more like a biography of, say, the disputed genius (or oddball) philosopher Wittgenstein as it is of Gödel. I don't know if it's just that there isn't too much biographical detail on Gödel himself (which would explain why it has taken so long to get a biography), or if Budiansky simply enjoys going off on tangents, but I found it hard not to keep skipping forward to find the next mention of the purported subject of the book.

A bit of a frustrating experience, then. There is no doubt that there is plenty of interesting material here, but far too much history, philosophical context and detail on obscure academics that Gödel interacted with, and not enough on the man himself.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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