|Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth |
by Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadmitriou, Alecos Papadatos, Annie Di Donna (Bloomsbury, 2009)
Logicomix is really two stories, one about mathematics and its relationship to logic, and the other about how a former math teacher, Doxiadis, and a logician, Papadmitriou, found a way to make mathematics and its relationship to logic interesting enough that the novel ended up on the New York Times Bestseller List.
Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadmitriou decided that the best way to unite the many related but still disparate elements of the history of logic, philosophy and mathematics was to use the device of a quest. After all, the unifying theme of setting off into unknown country worked for Robert Louis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard. In this case, the "treasure map" that's followed is the life of mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell and his search for the foundation of ultimate truth. Part adventure, part lecture and part biography, this densely packed story straddles the line between fact and fiction. You don't need to have a grasp of math, logic or philosophy in order to understand and appreciate this engaging novel.
The story opens with the English Russell, a noted opponent of World War I, about to give a lecture on the eve of England's entrance into the second World War. Stopped on the way to the lecture hall by pacifist protestors who don't want England to participate, he invites them inside the hall to hear his lecture. There, Russell delivers his answer to the question of whether or not England should become involved in another war by explaining his life up to that point, a biography that forms the basis of a brief, entertaining history of the development of modern logic. From his strictly regulated childhood, to his almost fundamentalist discovery of philosophy, to his eventual embrace of logic, Russell struggled to find the precise meaning of reality.
Though he sought answers everywhere, exploring a wide range of ideas, Russell ultimately found life and the language used to describe it to be too vague, too subtle, to provide clear answers. He collaborated with fellow English mathematician Alfred Whitehead on the groundbreaking Principa Mathematica. Russell's real skill, however, was symbolic logic. He was more interested in the relation between language and our world. That led him to publish An Inquiry into Meaning & Truth. His explanations of empirical knowledge, facts and observed principles inspired quite a bit of debate, not to mention stirring the imagination of the philosopher Wittgenstein, with whom Russell would enjoy a love-hate relationship.
The thematic center of the narration is madness versus sanity. It's a curious fact that many philosophers and logicians (e.g. Cantor, Godel, Frege) ended up suffering extreme mental illness. Russell seems to have escaped that curse, though his uncle and son were schizophrenic. Russell himself is none too sympathetic a hero at first. He sent his first wife away to a sanitarium, married three more times, made a pass at Whitehead's wife, Alice, and wasn't exactly the best father in the world. Thankfully, he mellowed with age, realizing that certainty in life was not an attainable goal, simply because there is no one system for proving anything to be absolutely true. Russell's answer to the pacifists is ultimately an acknowledgement of the vagaries of existence: he himself cannot really tell anyone what to do. We can only decide such matters for ourselves.
Logicomix is a fascinating description of the intellectual milieu of Russell's time. Many of the circumstances in the story are not only contrived but outright fictional; however, there was no other way to portray the fascinating array of mathematicians and philosophers of that period. It should be understood that this book, which was a major bestseller in Greece before it hit the bestseller lists in other countries, is not a primer on logic. It's really about the compromises we have to make in order to live our lives with any sort of peace. We are not logical beings and never will be, and life will always be a struggle for understanding. What's most important is the sense we make of our selves.
The narration can sometimes be a bit overly reliant on conventions, but the ideas it describes are presented with sincerity. I'd say that this is a comic book for serious geeks but I do think that anyone can grasp what's going on. I can't even balance my checkbook but I didn't find it very hard going. It's a pretty good, if rudimentary, introduction to math and logic, and a darned interesting one at that.
14 January 2012
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