Thursday, October 15, 2009

Logicomix: A (really) new way of looking at logic

Fred and Ginger, peanut butter and jelly...mathematics and graphic novels? Okay, so it doesn't sound like a natural pairing, but Logicomix, an illustrated guide to the life and work of Bertrand Russell by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou, works well. It is part biography and part philosophy road-trip. The authors take some extremely dense ideas and use the format of the graphic novel to present them in a way that grabs your attention without oversimplifying the topic. They use the character of the mathematician and logician Bertrand Russell as a frame for exploring the evolution of mathematical theory in the first half of the 20th century, a period when the philosopy of mathematics was undergoing some radical transformations. The complication of the growing power of Hitler's Reich adds yet another componant to the story, as our academic characters learn to confront the political reality of Europe as they work.

Bertrand Russell, who wrote the Principia Mathematica and who influenced Wittgenstein's later work in the field, is a perfect character for readers to get introduced to the complexites of the ideas in the book. The authors (who are also characters in the book) start out simply enough -- they show us a young "Bertie" Russell, the orphaned boy. Ruled by a domineering grandmother who uses faith as a bludgeon to keep the boy in line, Russell spends much of his early life looking for some kind of certainty in his lonely life. The precision of mathematics and logic seem to provide this certainty, although Russell is soon plagued by gaps in what is known about the field. The reader follows the maturing Russell as he collaborates (and occasionally confronts) the best minds in Europe on issues like set theory, infinity, and the limits of logic. At the same time, we see parts of Russell's life, and watch as he slowly realizes that logic cannot solve his own problems or those of a world that is hurtling toward another war.

The story covers decades on Russell's life, and introduces a host of characters. This is where the graphic novel format really shines -- despite the density of the subject, the format of the book keeps you engaged (and the handy appendix in the back keeps you from forgetting who's who). This book is great for anyone who's interested in the history of math, the life of Russell, or who just wants something different. Logicomix is a nonfiction tale that is like nothing else out there.

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