During the winter of 1943-44, as much of the supposedly civilized world was in the throes of WWII, four of the most brilliant thinkers of the century gathered in a small colonial-style house in Princeton, New Jersey. The home’s owner, Albert Einstein, hosted the informal get-togethers in his upper-floor study, where he, Bertrand Russell, Wolfgang Pauli, and Kurt Gödel congregated for weekly discussions. European by birth, all four men had been thrown together by the war, from which all but Russell had sought refuge at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. There, they wrote, occasionally lectured, and pondered a modern world that each had helped to shape but which had already escaped their grasp.
Burton Feldman, an English professor at the University of Denver, wrote the first draft of 112 Mercer Street before he passed away in early 2002. Based on that preliminary work as well as “extensive notes” he left behind, Feldman’s longtime friend and former student Katherine Williams completed the project and ushered it to publication. The result is an erratic at times and occasionally compelling look at four intellectual giants of the 20th century, all of whom sought to comprehend a universe that seemed to be receding ever further from human comprehension.
Feldman’s book is prompted by the fact that these weekly discussions occurred among men whose scientific excursions and personal relationships were so closely intertwined. The meetings themselves play almost no role in the discussion, however. Indeed, we know very little about them and cannot even be sure what they talked about or even whether all four were regular participants. All things considered, this is a strange plot device for a book. There even seems to be some doubt about whether Gödel was ever an actual participant. But while the meetings, as Feldman explains, “did not make history,” they “certainly embodied it” (5). Einstein’s work on relativity had shaped modern physics along with the younger Pauli, whose own work spurred the revolution in quantum physics; Russell and his younger colleague Gödel were philosophers whose work in analytic philosophy and logic, respectively, had earned them universal renown.
These men also came together as rivals, as “giants divided by a generation” (ix). Pauli’s quantum physics, though it owed a great debt to Einstein, had dramatically altered Einstein’s physics by accepting indeterminacy and rejecting the postulate that “an objective reality” could be apprehended (14). Gödel, for his part, had merely “demolished” Russell’s premise that “mathematics was a complete and universal language and logical system” (15). All four, however, had already offered their most significant intellectual contributions; they were, in a sense, “past their prime” (7). Gödel’s “incompleteness theorem” — set forth in 1931 — was the most recent significant achievement among the quartet, while Russell’s most creative years were three decades in the past. The younger men among them, Pauli and Gödel, had, by 1943, passed through their most productive years as well.
In the complex relationships among these intellectuals, we can discover what Feldman describes as the “pathos of science:” Scientists are “at once free and strictly confined, individual but ultimately subsumed” by events thoroughly outside his or her control (191). To emphasize the manner in which these men had seen their work and ideas overtaken by historical events, Feldman includes a brief chapter on the development of atomic weapons, which was only possible because their colleagues in Germany and the United States were pushing math, logic and physics toward the exercise of “brute power” (165). Feldman does not exactly tell his readers whether Einstein, Russell, Gödel and Pauli would have understood their meetings in this light. He surmises that they probably “spoke little about the war,” which would not have provoked much disagreement among them (198). He suggests that Einstein would have recognized that his own work had been “subsumed” and that his quest for a unified theory had proven no match for the latest research in quantum mechanics. As for the others, who can say?
This lack of clarification is perhaps appropriate, given the book’s focus on the work of four men who in various ways undermined the notion of scientific or logical certainty. But the overall point of the book never clearly emerges into focus. The individual chapters, taken on their own, are interesting and illuminating. “Four Lives” provides a useful biographical survey of each character, while “Beyond Pathos” offers a decent overview of the role of physicists in the atomic projects being carried out in Germany and America. But the book as a whole feels unbalanced — the former chapter is about 90 pages, while the latter comes in at a mere 25. What’s worse, Feldman occasionally digresses into broader (and not very clearly articulated) considerations regarding the “decline of great scientists” — a question that is in itself quite interesting, but which does not form enough of a focus for the book to warrant inclusion.
David Noon teaches American history at the University of Alaska Southeast.
Professor of American history at the University of Alaska Southeast.