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I got ‘The Impact of Science on Society‘ by Bertrand Russell at a secondhand books sale a few years back. It was an old copy and the individual pages were coming off. I finally took it out of my bookshelf and turned the pages delicately and read it.

I was expecting the book to be about how science is important to society – on how we all need to have a scientific temper, how we should follow the scientific process and method and use facts and logical analysis to arrive at conclusions. This book, interestingly, was different. It was about how society evolved from ancient times, when people believed in received information and words of wisdom and how this changed in recent centuries after the advent of science. Then Bertrand Russell touches on how science has impacted everyday life and work and the economy and war and how science impacts different political structures like democracies and totalitarian systems and how science impacts our values. Russell talks about both the positive and negative impacts of science in all these areas. Then Russell goes on to imagine what the future has in store. When Russell talks about science, he is mostly talking about what he calls ‘scientific technique’, which is what we call ‘technology’ today. The factual and historical parts of the book were wonderful. Some of Russell’s analysis and predictions and vision for the future feels dated, but that is to expected because this book came out in 1952, and it was the beginning of the Cold War era, and the world was a different place then. But the things that Russell gets right are amazing, because those insights apply very much to our modern world. Russell prose is simple and straightforward and he writes with clear, simple logic, taking an argument from first principles and leading it forward. He is not scared of offering unconventional opinions and arriving at unconventional conclusions based on where the facts and logic take him, and we understand why his own countrymen were uncomfortable with him during his time, because he calls a spade a spade. Interestingly, this is the first proper book by Bertrand Russell that I have read. I don’t know why I haven’t read his work before, because I really like his writing. I am hoping to read more of his books.

I am giving below one of my favourite passages from the book which feels true even today, though it talks about a different time.

“…even in a country like our own, where industrialism is old, changes occur with a rapidity which is psychologically difficult. Consider what has happened during my life-time. When I was a child telephones were new and very rare. During my first visit to America I did not see a single motor-car. I was 39 when I first saw an aeroplane. Broadcasting and the cinema have made the life of the young profoundly different from what it was during my own youth. As for public life, when I first became politically conscious Gladstone and Disraeli still confronted each other amid Victorian solidities, the British Empire seemed eternal, a threat to British naval supremacy was unthinkable, the country was aristocratic and rich and growing richer, and Socialism was regarded as the fad of a few disgruntled and disreputable foreigners.
For an old man, with such a background, it is difficult to feel at home in a world of atomic bombs, communism, and American supremacy. Experience, formerly a help in the acquisition of political sagacity, is now a positive hindrance, because it was acquired in such different conditions. It is now scarcely possible for a man to acquire slowly the sort of wisdom which in former times caused ‘elders’ to be respected, because the lessons of experience become out of date as fast as they are learnt. Science, while it has enormously accelerated outward change, has not yet found any way of hastening psychological change, especially where the unconscious and subconscious are concerned. Few men’s unconscious feels at home except in conditions very similar to those which prevailed when they were children.”

Have you read ‘The Impact of Science on Society‘ by Bertrand Russell? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Russell book?

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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.


What I think

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.

Further Reading

‘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.

Final Thoughts

‘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.

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