Monday, October 26, 2009


I loved Logicomix, the graphic novel of ideas written by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou and illustrated by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna (here are reviews from the NYT and Guardian). It dramatizes the quest of Bertrand Russell and some of his contemporaries to build a certain basis for knowledge, beginning with the project of providing a complete and consistent logical foundation for mathematics (or at least arithmetic). It was a quest tinged with tragic overtones, as the effort itself led to the uncovering of its own impossibility (culminating with Gödel’s theorems). The authors play up a second kind of dramatic theme as well, dwelling on the specter of madness as it haunted figures in turn of the 20th century mathematics: it depicts Cantor’s insanity, Frege’s paranoia, and Russell’s fear of inheritable madness in his family.

I guess I rate Logicomix highly in part just because it was such a nice surprise that it exists! I’m not sure where it would rank if there were 10 graphic novels dramatizing historical intellectual or scientific quests. If I were to come up with criticism, I would say first that it has an excess of framing devices: the story is delivered by Russell via reminisces at a 1939 lecture; then, an outer frame consists of ingressions of the authors themselves as they debate how to present the story, and then at the end digress into a discussion of Aeschylus’ Oresteia (!). Also, I think the madness theme is too forced (e.g. by having Russell seeking out Cantor without knowing he was committed to an asylum – Russell never met him).

The ideas themselves are presented accurately, I think, although not explored in great depth: the focus is more on storytelling. However, a key conclusion is delivered correctly IMO: reality outruns its abstract description (the map should not be mistaken for the territory). Both Russell and his Principia Mathematica collaborator Alfred North Whitehead separately would critique metaphysical materialism in the 1920’s developing this theme.

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