Gödel, Taub and the Princeton connection

by bob jantzen, February 2022  [scroll down to the Princeton photos section ]

When I was an undergraduate in Princeton ('74) in my sophomore year in 1971, a junior physics major (Jim Isenberg '73) was looking for warm bodies to meet a quota for a student-initiated seminar on differential geometry for general relativity, and having encountered Lillian Lieber's whimsical book The Einstein Theory of General Relativity (1933) in our little village public library in the ninth grade, I was immediately interested. Remo Ruffini was the lecturer that spring, a colleague of my sophomore Modern Physics professor John Wheeler, and he wanted everyone to do a project for the class. For some reason long forgotten, he suggested I help him translate a 90 page landmark paper by Luigi Bianchi in Italian classifying the symmetry groups of a  3-dimensional homogeneous space, the spaces on which spatially homogeneous or "Bianchi" cosmological models were built. That summer with my year of college Spanish and a dictionary, I plowed through most of it (Princeton students can be quite imaginative about what they can do), since Remo never really had time to do more to help me than check over the small percentage of pieces that I had trouble with. Three and a half decades later Andrzej Krasinski contacted me to do this translation, and together we polished that old translation of mine for a GRG Golden Oldie.

In the fall of 1973, my senior year, I was doing a year long senior thesis on Bianchi cosmology, and one evening Remo decided I should meet Gödel to talk about rotating universes. Remo never told me any back story about him riding a bus with Gödel etc (which he did decades later) or that my classmate Mark Johnston had also met Gödel (or was it Bob Leach who did his junior thesis on the Gödell spacetime). He looked up Gödel’s phone number in the Princeton phone book (innocent times in those days) and called him up to arrange an appointment at the Institute (for Advanced Studies) for me. I remember walking over and meeting him in his office. He was a very polite elderly gentleman dressed in black, and when I asked him about rotating universes, he told me about the then current work of Michael Ryan which put me on the right track to do Lagrangian/Hamiltonian Lie group variable parametrization of the problem.  As an undergraduate without good contacts for knowing about current research or how to do it, and no internet search engine to help,  I had not been aware of Ryan's work, having started out studying the more unsophisticated work of Istvan Ozsvath. My undergraduate thesis laid the foundation for my later PhD studies of the dynamics of Bianchi cosmology and its Hamiltonian structure and perturbations of this structure.

Remo was on sabbatical that following spring of my senior year when I had to decide on grad school and I was all set to go to the University of Maryland to Charlie Misner’s group when Remo returned and redirected me to Abe Taub at UC Berkeley. I got to work with Abe the final four years before his retirement in 1978, which coincided with his mild heart attack. Abe’s wife Cece was a real firecracker, very talkative compared  to the quiet Abe. It turns out they were married in Chicago before Abe arrived at the grad school in the early 1930s where it was forbidden for grad students to be married, so they rented an apartment in town, and Abe found a way to get thrown out of the graduate housing so he could go live with Cece secretly. Abe studied with H.P. Robertson during the decade of the 1930s when the IAS and the Math Dept shared the same "Fine" Hall (later renamed) which welcomed Einstein, Wigner, Gödel and others as refugees from the increasing fascism in Europe, getting a joint degree in math and physics. I was able to visit Abe and Cece a few times in the early 1990s when a young Roman collaborator was doing his PhD at the GP-B group at Stanford, and then the 1994 MG7 led to some more visits. [Abe Taub, Siam Obit]

When Abe died in 1999 I went to the Math-Physics library in the new Fine Hall attached to the Jadwyn physics building of my undergraduate years looking for some material about him, and a librarian found the unpublished "The Princeton Mathematics Community in the 1930s: An Oral History Project" with interviews done with the participants of  those years when Abe had been at Princeton. She suggested I contact the famous historian of physics Charles Gillispie who often used the same library, so I did and we had lunch at the Faculty Dining Hall in his retirement, and he suggested that I be the one to put this project online, which I did. When I contacted the IAS on related issues, they told me they had some boxes of materials from Gödel, but I never followed it up. Apparently Engelbert Schucking had looked at those materials in 1961 as he described later. I had lunch with Engelbert and Remo at the faculty club in 1974 after his talk about another famous rotating spacetime. Later one of Gödel's biographer's John Dawson gave a talk on his work at our local History of Mathematics group at Villanova where he had been a regular participant but which I missed due to a conflict. Unfortunately he had no expertise in relativity to know what to do with those boxes.

It turns out that Abe had returned to the IAS in 1947 leaving his position at the U of Washington after an unfortunate and unfair affair I never understood clearly, when Gödel was doing his famous work on some Bianchi rotating universes that was published the following two years, and von Neumann got Abe a new job in 1948 directing the first university computer center (Abe later edited the collected works of von Neumann). Abe started his own work on the entire class of Bianchi spacetimes which was published not long after Gödel's pair. Who knows if there had been any interaction between Abe and Gödel, the latter's name attached to the most famous rotating universe mathematical model of all time. Apparently Schucking had asked himself the same question, but like me, never asked Abe about it.

  1. Lillian Lieber, http://www34.homepage.villanova.edu/robert.jantzen/lieber/

  2.  A Pedestrian's Guide to the Mathematics of Spatially Homogeneous Cosmology (or: One, Two, Three... Cosmology), Princeton University undergraduate thesis, 1974

  3. Luigi Bianchi, http://www34.homepage.villanova.edu/robert.jantzen/research/bibabs.htm#78,

  4. Charles Gillispie

  5. The Princeton Mathematics Community in the 1930s: An Oral History Project (online version 2001)

  6. Godel's rotating universe hobby described in this Oral History Project

  7. Abraham H. Taub, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_H._Taub

  8. H.P. "Bob" Richardson, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_P._Robertson

Princeton undergraduate GR students of Ruffini

Princeton physics 74   class of 74 senior group photo  Princeton Physics Faculty 1973    
class of 74 sophomore photo with John Wheeler   class of 74 senior photo   Physics faculty 1973
         jantzen, leach, johnston     bob closeup with friends

Three undergraduates from the Princeton physics class of 1974 and two from 1973 worked with Remo on various GR topics. Above is the John Wheeler Modern Physics class in 1972.

Alphabetically by last name and reverse class order:

The 30 page preface by Remo to the MG7 Proceedings tells the story of these students in the larger context of his journey:

David Derbes '74 [thesis] convinced bob to switch from Math to Physics after our freshman mechanics class together, which put bob on his path into GR and eventually a part-time life in Italy.

figure from article

Mark Johnston's Godel Anecdote

Mark was the most involved in serious calculations, studying the orbits of test particles around black holes, and his Figure 10 in the resulting Phys Rev D article (see above graphic)  was then later used as a logo for Remo's ICRA (International Center for Relativistic Astrophysics) and ICRANet (ICRA Network) institutions

icra logo                icra logo yellow maroon

and then made into a silver sculpture by the artist A Pierelli:
TEST: Traction of Events in Space-Time

pierelli test sculpture

Mark recalls in 2022:

The story with the Godel visit from my recollection - Remo and I went over to IAS to talk to Godel about his cosmological models, I think it was in connection with my Kerr-Newman trajectory calculations since I wasn’t doing any specific work on cosmology. In any case we had a nice visit but did not really get any additional information. At the end, I pulled out a copy of the book on his work and asked him to autograph it - I had stopped by the University bookstore a few days before and bought a copy. I think it was the Nagel and Newman book, but I'm not positive. He agreed - but said he didn’t like the introduction and signed halfway into the book where the actual theorem started. 

I have kept the book all these years, but when we moved from Palo Alto to southern California in 2004, I had put it in a safe deposit box in Palo Alto, where it is today. I had thought I would make multiple trips to the Bay Area and have a chance to close out and move the box contents nearer our home, but that hasn’t happened yet. So it is about 500 miles away, but very safe. One of these days I’ll retrieve it and can scan and send a copy of the signature.

There is at least one other signed copy out there:
This link is to a bookshop that is selling a signed copy - supposedly from Steven Hawking’s library! For only $1750 US.

  1. Mark's article with Remo: Mark Johnston and Remo Ruffini, Generalized Wilkins effect and selected orbits in a Kerr-Newman geometry (Phys. Rev. D 10, 2324,1974),
    He also worked with Frank Zerilli and Remo on the black hole perturbation problem:
    Gravitationally Induced Electromagnetic Radiation
  2. Attilio Pierelli, website.
  3. ICRA website, ICRANet website.
  4. Mark was visiting the Hubble Space Telescope Institute and asked where the MG Award sculpure awarded to it at MG7 (1994) was now located having seen it on a previous visit. The person he asked said it was in storage and offered to give it to him, given the fact that he was the ultimate source of this art work. It is only fitting that Mark too now have one of these unique sculptures in his possession, even if he hasn't yet figured out how to properly display it yet (2022).

Rick Hanni was Richard Squire Hanni

He went off to Stanford where I met him while I was at UC Berkeley grad school. He preceded me in Rome with Remo  by one year with a postdoc position at La Sapienza in the G9 group. We kept in touch off and on until his untimely and unexpected death.

He had a visiting position at Georgia Tech for a  year, but then failed to land anywhere else and began a hermit-like life in a cabin in the woods. He died by suicide setting fire to his cabin and using a shotgun. A sad end to an eccentric but interesting friend. No trace of him left on the internet apart from his articles.

  1. http://www34.homepage.villanova.edu/robert.jantzen/drbob/graphics/g9/g9list.htm
  2. Early Roman life in Remo's group:
  3. One of the most exciting problems proposed by Johnny Wheeler to students and collaborators at Princeton (see Fig. 9) was the problem of a charged test particle at rest near a black hole. Rick took up this problem as an undergraduate.
  4. Lines of Force of a Point Charge near a Schwarzschild Black Hole (1973)
  5. Schwarzschild black hole in a asymptotically uniform magnetic field (1976)
  6. With Damour, Ruffini and James Wilson
  7. A search turns up this mention in Thorne's popular book: Black Holes and Time Warps, Einstein's Outragieous Legacy:
    "PROLOGUE 27 You know that this hole was created long ago by the death of a star, ... In 1971 Richard Hanni, an undergraduate at Priuceton University, ..."