Nov 21, 2009

Logicomix--Mathematics & Madness

I BOUGHT Logicomix last Sunday and, reading feverishly on my lunch breaks, and in transit between home and work, finished it yesterday. Admittedly, I tried at first to draw out the pleasure, but finally gave up and glutted myself.

One thing: Logicomix is, as the name suggests, a comic book. Or rather, a graphic novel. But from here on I refer to it as a book because frankly, it's just trying to tell a story in the most interesting way possible.

Starting at the beginning though, I have to say I'd never have learned about it if not for this fine New York Times review. The book is on their best-seller list, and deservedly.

How do I describe the story? It's a story-within-a-story-within-a-story. The authors put themselves in the book, discussing the process by which they're trying to present the life and ideas of Bertrand Russell. That makes the book self-referential, which is ironic in the context of the story it's telling.

The main story is the life of the mathematician-philosopher Bertrand Russell and his titanic struggle to uncover the most fundamental meaning of logic (and therefore math, science and philosophy).

Russell lived in a time of great upheaval in the mathematical, logic and philosophy communities. He collaborated, and sparred, intellectually with such greats as Alfred North Whitehead, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gottlob Frege, Georg Cantor, Kurt Gödel and David Hilbert (to name just a few). Their passion and drive is explored, and the authors actively try to explain, what made them so great, so insanely driven? (Russell and Whitehead worked on a book trying to explain all of mathematics for ten years before finally giving up and releasing it, unfinished.)

The authors seem to think there was a connection between their logical worldviews and some innate streak of madness. And they don't shy away from exploring this graphically, taking full advantage of the comic medium to show, for example, Russell waking from a nightmare of chaos, face contorted in fear and near-insanity.

Indeed, the authors are definitely not afraid of taking liberties with details of the story to add to the dramatic tension. They've done extensive research on the lives and ideas of everyone in the book--turn to the bibliography in the back if you don't believe me--and they feel, and I agree with them, that these changes add to the tightness and structure of the story. Sometimes you do get a feeling that a conversation seems too contrived, but honestly, the feeling is just washed away by the incredible ideas you encounter.

So is this a math book, stuffed full of math? Well yes and no. It's stuffed full of math and logic ideas, but there's not a single equation in the whole story. The ideas are explained by their creators and their best lovers, the protagonists of the story. You grasp them from the bird's-eye view and you get them, without needing to do a single sum.

So near the beginning of this post, I said it's ironic that the book is self-referential. Let me explain: the problem of logical statements that are self-referential is one that has puzzled great minds, including Russell's, for centuries. For example, how to interpret the following statement?

This statement is false.

If the above statement is false, then it must be true. And if it's true, it must be false!

Near the end, the authors hint that the end of their story is really just the beginning of the much greater story of the renaissance of mathematics with computer science. I'm eagerly looking forward to a follow-up book (or books?). Wishing every success to the authors.

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna.

Offtopic: Trying out the MarsEdit blog editor on the Mac to see if it's worth paying for.