Alfred Tarski: Life and Logic

Anita Burdman Feferman and Solomon Feferman

Read September, 2006

Alfred Tarski is a giant of 20th century logic, a man who through his own work and that of his brilliant students put model theory firmly on the map and made it a central mode of reasoning. We've come to take it so much for granted that we often forget that it was neither central nor natural to reason this way. Indeed, every few months—usually when I'm teaching an acolyte—I force myself to pause and take in the wonder of thinking this way at all.

Tarski the person was a remarkably complex character. Born a Polish Jew but identifying as Polish rather than Jewish, he converted to Catholicism not for reasons of faith (he appears to have been a non-believer) but because he felt it was central to Polish identity. (It is a conversion some of his fellow Polish Jews never entirely forgave him for, as the Fefermans best illustrate in a touching 80th-birthday letter to Tarski from his former student, Samuel Eilenberg.) The conversion helped nothing, as Tarski struggled to find a job. He traveled to the US (alone, leaving behind his wife, son and daughter) in August, 1939; a week later he would have been unable to leave Poland. (And what a ship it must have been: the party on board included Stanislaw and Adam Ulam.) Tarski then struggled to find work in the US until ending up at Berkeley in 1945. In very short order he converted what he saw as a provincial outpost into a world center for logic. All this, and more, the Fefermans document. (A bit of awkwardness in the book revolves around Solomon Feferman, who is simultaneously an author and one of Tarski's most brilliant and accomplished students.)

To leave things here would be to avoid the elephant in the room, which is Tarski's personality. A driven, megalomaniacal character, he seemed to subsist principally on four inputs: cigarettes, slivovitz, work nights that ran until dawn, and women. Ah yes, the women. His interests appear to have been an occupational hazard even to his own—especially to his own—graduate students, to an extent we cannot simply dismiss as being a product of its times. And yet, and yet...there is something tawdry about the Fefermans' obsession with it, down to speculating about which students he did and did not bed. Their exposé is appropriate and their moral disapproval is fitting, but at some point the reader thinks: we get it, already!

As a book, then, this volume is mixed. You sense the authors wrote sections independently; unfortunately their accomplished editor didn't pull out the various bits of repetition and redundancy. The obsessive detail on with Tarski's womanizing suggests the authors slightly lost their plot: there have, after all, been numerous womanizers, but very few who reassembled our understanding of logic. On the other hand, there are three things to commend it. First, it is unlikely there will be many biographies of Tarski; if there are no others, this one is at least adequate. But that is damning with faint praise, and I can do better. Second, they do an excellent job of painting each milieu that Tarski found himself in, performing excellent historical scholarship to unearth his Polish days and then painting a superb portrait of the transformation of Berkeley. And finally, the book does benefit from being co-written by a logician, with interludes on Tarski's work that left me wanting much, much more. One notable bit of mathematical gossip is their evidence that Tarski was on the way to discovering Gödel's first incompleteness result for himself; when Gödel beat him to it, Tarski (in his typical obsessive manner) created an imaginary rivalry with Gödel, and never really gave Göodel credit for his work (pointedly acknowledging him only for the arithmetization of syntax).

Thanks to Paul Steckler for lending us this book.