Reading Time: 4 mins
“I wonder what they talk about”.
We often wonder this very thing when faced with a brilliant man getting married to a woman whose intellectual quotient is not her forte. Yet we never wonder about the opposite – about how tiring it must be for an ordinary woman to live with a genius at home. How many geniuses do you know that have never had a brush with a mental disorder, or exhibit self-destructive tendencies? How many do you know that aren’t hypochondriac or agoraphobic? Kurt Gödel, one of the most celebrated mathematicians in history, was not exception to this rule of thumb. And yet Adele, his wife of 35 years, remained by his side lavishing him with love, devotion, and admiration.
It begins like this.
It’s 1928. Adele Porkert, who works as a dancer at a Viennese cabaret, is walking home from work one morning, when she notices a hunched young man walking opposite her house. Having heard of the rumours about gangs kidnapping young girls to sell them off to brothels in Berlin, Adele picks up her pace and hurriedly enters her home, slamming the door behind her. Yet for the next two weeks, she keeps seeing the young man, at the same place, always hunched and always in the early hours of the morning. One night she sees him at the cabaret, amongst a group of other men. And when she decides to talk to him, little does she know that she’s about to embark on a relationship with a man that’s destined to become one of the world’s foremost mathematicians.
For those who are not quick at maths, a literary love story is the best way to get around the technical bits. This is the challenge that Yannick Grannec’s book lives up to. Grannec, herself a lover of numbers, decided to research the life of Kurt Gödel who, together with Alfred Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, was to define two golden decades of American science and technology, the ‘40s and the ‘50s, in the shadow of the atrocities resulting from the discovery of the atom bomb.
The book is a fascinating study on love, commitment, and the painful interaction between two people who are forced, due to Hitler’s anti-Semitism, to flee their beloved Vienna and dedicate themselves to academic life at Princeton university. They seem to complete each other. He is in need of her attentiveness; she falls for his intelligence. It doesn’t end well, though. And the reader can’t help but ask: could they have been happier leading separate lives?
Most fictionalized biographies offer delicious inside information on real-life individuals. Here, the info that’s dished out on characters such as Albert Einstein – a personal friend of Gödel’s – guarantees an enjoyable read and offsets any narrative shortcomings encountered in the second half of the book. In this sense, Yannick Grannec’s book is a sort of an idiot’s guide to mathematics: she manages to make mathematical theorems accessible through the use of a love story that was utterly real.