By Mark Trodden | April 29, 2009 12:19 pm

As I reached the end of what would be called high school in the US, I was certain that I wanted more than anything to become a mathematician. Soon afterwards, as a beginning maths undergraduate at Cambridge, I had become even more committed to the subject, after having spent some time reading about the history of the subject, and becoming enthralled by the lives and contributions of some of the great mathematicians. Among these, I found myself personally drawn to Bertrand Russell, partly because I was more interested in philosophy then than I am these days, but mostly because of the sheer grandness of the vision embodied in the Principia Mathematica – the opus co-authored by Russell with Alfred North Whitehead – and it’s later challenge from Gödel.

Nevertheless, as one gets older, reads more, and hopefully gains a more sophisticated knowledge of the subject, one’s tastes tend to change somewhat. In my case, a gradual shift in my interests from pure to applied mathematics, and finally to theoretical physics opened up an increasing range of giants to understand and respect. Somehow though, I have always retained a soft spot for Russell; perhaps because of his atheism, perhaps because of his breadth, but more so I think, because when I think of him I can quite viscerally recall the way reading about him made me feel about mathematics.

Because of this, while I have never become an avid reader of graphic novels, I’m hoping to get hold of a copy of Apostolos Doxiadis’ Logicomix, which I learned about via The Guardian, and which the web site describes as

Covering a span of sixty years, the graphic novel Logicomix was inspired by the epic story of the quest for the Foundations of Mathematics.

This was a heroic intellectual adventure most of whose protagonists paid the price of knowledge with extreme personal suffering and even insanity. The book tells its tale in an engaging way, at the same time complex and accessible. It grounds the philosophical struggles on the undercurrent of personal emotional turmoil, as well as the momentous historical events and ideological battles which gave rise to them.

The role of narrator is given to the most eloquent and spirited of the story’s protagonists, the great logician, philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell. It is through his eyes that the plights of such great thinkers as Frege, Hilbert, Poincaré, Wittgenstein and Gödel come to life, and through his own passionate involvement in the quest that the various narrative strands come together.

The web site contains a few samples of what to expect, plus a nice summary of the cast of characters. To a graphic novel newbie like myself, it isn’t obvious what to expect from a telling of this kind of sweeping academic story in such a format. But the team involved looks promising, and I’m sufficiently fascinated by the subject matter that I’m really looking forward to getting a look at Logicomix.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mathematics, Philosophy, Words

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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