In 1956 Scientific American published an article by Ernest Nagel and James R. Newman entitled "Gödel's Proof." Two years later the writers published a book with the same title--a wonderful work that is still in print. I was a child, not even a teenager, and I was obsessed by this little book. I remember the thrill of discovering it in the New York Public Library. I used to carry it around with me and try to explain it to other children.
It fascinated me because Kurt Gödel used mathematics to show that mathematics itself has limitations. Gödel refuted the position of David Hilbert, who about a century ago declared that there was a theory of everything for math, a finite set of principles from which one could mindlessly deduce all mathematical truths by tediously following the rules of symbolic logic. But Gödel demonstrated that mathematics contains true statements that cannot be proved that way. His result is based on two self-referential paradoxes: "This statement is false" and "This statement is unprovable." (For more on Gödel's incompleteness theorem, see www.sciam.com/ontheweb)
This article was originally published with the title The Limits of Reason.