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July 28, 2011 / Dr. Toad

Logicomix: a review

I’m not a big reader of comic books. So take my words on this for what they’re worth. This one I picked up at the Seattle Public Library because I knew it dealt with the story of the logical foundations of math, a subject I used to find extremely fascinating when I was younger, brighter, and better-looking. That, and also because Christos Papadimitriou is a co-author, and I saw him give a very compelling talk once on what he calls the algorithmic lens (I’ll tell you about it another time, or watch this hour-long video).

Logicomix cover

Logicomix: An epic search for truth is a layered and expressively drawn book, and tells a good story mixed with profound ideas. The main arc is the life story of Bertrand Russell, mathematician, logician, philosopher and activist, and his quest to establish, once and for all, how one might gain true knowledge about the world with certainty. He does it by trying to derive all of mathematics from logic, the most basic and certain tool of reasoning. He fails, by the way. But in a very illuminating way.

Logicomix does a good job of explaining what was so powerfully missing from mathematics at the turn of the 20th century, as well as Russell’s intellectual journey, aided by other great minds, to fill the big gap. The tale is artfully spun, and shows both the logical arguments and the illogic of war, bigotry and other human affairs in a rich, fun, and self-referential way.

However, it’s not as good as it could have been. And my beef with it is two-fold.

For one, the authors really work for the connection between mathematical genius and insanity. It’s the backbone of their story, and it’s true that Russell had looked into the abyss and sought to never look again by turning his sights to science, logic and philosophy instead. But that entire vibe connecting almost all other mathematician and logician characters to madness serves to reinforce a rather anti-intellectual stereotype. Don’t look too close, don’t try to understand things that mere mortals were never meant to know! And should you disobey, abandon hope! Dramatic, but untrue, as evidenced by Russell’s long, productive, oh so human and ultimately very sane life itself.

And speaking of stereotypes, here’s my beef #2. Women in Logicomix are sounding boards, tea-makers and either stern god-fearing grandmas or love interests. You may say: but this was the historical truth. Maybe… although the Vienna Circle for example had women members (Rose Rand, Olga Hahn-Neurath) yet the art shows only the furrowed brows of males in the audience, bearded, balding, bespectacled. It’s worth remembering that in any age women live profound intellectual lives — and not only confined to reading Alice in Wonderland or discussing their impossibly absent-minded logician husbands. As for the present day, in the wrap-around story of the making of the comic book Christos’s character asks Anne Bardy’s character if she has a math background. “God no!” exclaims Anne, the visual researcher. Sigh.

If a young woman chances upon Logicomix in her developing intellectual curiosity about logic, math, and truth, I hope she will have the strength of conviction to not identify with the tea-pouring wives but with the intensely thinking protagonists who just happen to be male. If a young man reads it for the same reason, I hope he has other sources of wisdom around him to counteract any expectation that he can sigh and read great psychology books while his future wife will get up in the middle of the night to tend to any crying babies.

In the book Alys says she wouldn’t want to be the wife of a mad genius, and neither should you. You should be the mad genius yourself. Or better yet, a sane genius, who’s unfortunately perceived as mad by the anti-intellectual sort.

And if you’d like to learn more deeply about the quest for the foundations of math and where it took us, go read Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.

Recommendation: accept with revisions.

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