Super Russell and the quest for first principles

October 15, 2009

It must have been a tough idea to sell to a publisher: a graphic novel about Bertrand Russell's "quest for the foundations of mathematics".

The philosopher and mathematician, probably the best-known public intellectual of his generation, spent much of his early career on this mission. It eventually led him and Alfred North Whitehead to pay for the printing of their Principia Mathematica (1910) - a book that took 362 pages to prove that 1+1=2.

This hardly sounds like a promising topic for a graphic novel, yet it is precisely the challenge taken on by the authors of Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth (Bloomsbury).

Apostolos Doxiadis had already written a bestselling novel, Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture (2000), in which a mathematician cracks up while attempting to prove a celebrated 18th-century theory that every even number above two is the sum of two primes.

His co-author, Christos H. Papadimitriou, professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, had written a novel about Alan Turing, the mathematician and computer pioneer.

Logicomix opens with the two authors debating how they can possibly bring their narrative to life.

How can we explain, asks Professor Papadimitriou, "the curiously high rate of psychosis in the lives of the founders of logic"?

What if Russell's icy, logical rigour was a defence against fears that he might succumb to the family propensity to madness?

Mix in a cast of wild eccentrics such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, along with paradoxes, philosophical squabbles and academic rivalries, and Logicomix begins to turn into an intellectual page-turner.

But why adopt the comic-book form? Because, Mr Doxiadis said, the medium is "perfect for stories of heroes in search of great goals".

As Michael Harris, professor of mathematics at Universite Paris 7, says on the sleeve: "The lives of ideas (and those who think them) can be as dramatic and unpredictable as any superhero fantasy."

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