My year of reading graphic novels, thin books and light reading continues. I should be really ashamed of myself for this, but I also have a valid excuse – what can I do when there are so many graphic novels and thin books which are excellent
I saw ‘Logicomix’ in the bookshop sometime back. It was a book on some of the events related to the history of 20th century mathematics, told in graphic novel form. I found the premise as well as the mode of storytelling interesting, and so I got it. I finished reading it today. Here is the review.
Summary of the review
I am giving below the summary of the story as given in the book’s inside flap.
This innovative graphic novel is based on the early life of the brilliant philosopher Bertrand Russell and his impassioned pursuit of truth. Haunted by family secrets and unable to quell his youthful curiosity, Russell became obsessed with a Promethean goal : to establish the logical foundations of all mathematics.
In his agonized search for absolute truth, Russell crosses paths with legendary thinkers like Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert and Kurt Godel, and finds a passionate student in the great Ludwig Wittgenstein. But the object of his defining quest continues to loom before him. Through love and hate, peace and war, Russell persists in the dogged mission that threatens to claim both his career and his personal happiness, finally driving him to the brink of insanity.
Logicomix is at the same time a historical novel and an accessible introduction to some of the biggest ideas of mathematics and modern philosophy. With rich characterizations and expressive, atmospheric artwork, it spins the pursuit of these ideas into a captivating tale.
Probing and ingeniously layered, the book throws light on Russell’s inner struggles while setting them in the context of the timeless questions he spent his life trying to answer. At its heart, Logicomix is a story about the conflict between an ideal rationality and the unchanging, flawed fabric of reality.
I enjoyed reading ‘Logicomix’ very much. It is a story about mathematics and philosophy in the early 20th century and the people who took part in this interesting adventure. The reader doesn’t need to have any knowledge of mathematics to appreciate the story. The authors and their team turn up in the book and narrate the story and then hand it over to Bertrand Russell, who continues it. The authors keep on popping up intermittently in the story at interesting points.
I wish the book was available when I was studying in school and college – the names and concepts that we learnt in mathematics classes come alive in this book. I still remember my first mathematics class in college – our professor taught us Euler’s formula and used it as a calculating tool for solving problems (which was really a shame!). I later appreciated the magic of Euler’s formula while reading Roger Penrose’s ‘The Road to Reality’. In the same way this book brought to the fore, the magic of set theory, the foundations of mathematics and how people sacrificed their lives and their sanity to build those foundations. It was interesting for me to learn that some of the basic mathematical notations that we use today, (like ‘for every x’ and ‘there exists an x’), were invented only around a century back. The book also touches on some of the momentous happenings in mathematics during the first half of the twentieth century – when mathematicians like Russell and Godel discovered a simple example or one theorem which rendered someone else’s lifetime work meaningless. It is one of the tragedies of mathematics that the pursuit of truth sometimes demolishes hope and beauty and shows us a truth that we don’t want to hear. Russell says these poignant lines in the book, when he narrates the story on Godel’s ‘Incompleteness Theorem’ :
“All over!” Von Neumann’s comment perfectly sums-up the essence of Godel’s proof. I know it may be hard for laypersons to understand…But for a lot of intelligent people, the Incompleteness Theorem meant the end of a Dream! The Dream had theological ancestry. Its credo had been written in Greek, two and a half millennia ago! And now suddenly, the rug had been pulled from under the feet of the dreamers. That is the beauty, that is the terror of Mathematics…There’s no getting around a proof…Even if it proves that something is unprovable!
There was also another interesting thing that I discovered – out of the mathematicians that the book mentions (the time period is the first part of the twentieth century), there are five from Germany and one each from France, Italy and Hungary. There are also four mathematicians from the UK, but that is to be expected from a book which is told from Bertrand Russell’s point of view. It looks like Germany was a centre of a lot of creative activity during the first half of the twentieth century. The book ends with the famous last scene from Aeschylus’ play ‘Oresteia‘, one of the great tragedies from ancient Greek literature.
‘Logicomix’ was one of the shortlisted books in the annual ‘Tournament of Books’. Unfortunately, it was pitted against ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel (the previous year’s Booker prize winner) and so lost in the first round. You can read about it here.
‘Logicomix’ is an innovative experiment in describing the history of mathematics in graphic novel form. I have to say it succeeds excellently. If you like mathematics and graphic novels, you will like the way both of them combine together in this book to give pleasure to the reader.