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Logicomix

Growing up, I always thought of myself as a mathematician, not because I was an original thinker in math, but because I was adept. I loved its beauty and how different branches overlapped in a way I found profound. I can still recall the moment I learned that quadratic equations illustrated slices of a cone. It was as if a puzzle had clicked itself into place -- math, I was convinced, described the world!

xkcd.com

I entered college as a declared math major. Over the next four years I explored new areas to me -- graph theory, non-euclidean geometry, topology, number theory, among others. And I took a class in logic -- something to which I looked forward since, as I saw it, logic held all of mathematics together.

The class proved a disaster. Our teacher was the epitome of the distracted math professor. Besides a disheveled appearance and a glancing understanding of hygiene, he did not know how to communicate. He jotted things on the board, mumbled to himself, assigned problems in the book and wandered off. A pair of students frequently made fun of him on the occasions he showed up in the classroom, further disrupting any learning. In this chaos, my biggest weakness revealed itself to me: I learned best from people, not so well from a book. I did okay by the end -- I was adept at solving problems -- but the class left me completely dissatisfied.

I should try a different angle, I thought. The philosophy department also offered a course in logic. Here I'd learn its history, read Aristotle, maybe some Descartes, explore more recent philosophers and logicians, and give me another way to understand the subject.

I was disappointed. This time the professor was a personable, thoughtful, excellent communicator. But I realized too late that he planned to spend the entire semester recreating a basic logical system while teaching the tools logicians use to create algorithms. It was math-lite, too simple for me.

I gave up. Graduation approached, and I had decided to move away from mathematics. Multiple experiences in college had convinced me that math was disconnected from the world we lived in. People were governed by emotions and needs, not by axioms and proofs. In real life, ethical imperatives followed a different kind of track than in the world of mathematics. So I left the beauty of complex, explainable systems for the beauty of our messy, inexplainable society and became an attorney.

Enter Logicomix: And Epic Search for the Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou, art by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna.

Cover Logicomix

Here is what I had been missing! I read all 350 pages of this book, including the 25 pages of dense notes, in just a few days.

The graphic novel provides a fictionalized biography of Bertrand Russell, the famous mathematician, philosopher, logician, pacifist and public thinker. Although many of the historical details are bent to fit the purposes of the story, the novel gives an entertaining presentation of Russell's real quest to find the logical foundation of all mathematics. We follow his life starting with his repressive childhood through several marriages, to a lecture he gives at an unnamed American university on September 4, 1939, three days after Germany invaded Poland, triggering World War II.

Logicomix delivers an approachable history to an area of thought most people think of as unapproachable. With a creative use of text and powerful images, the book makes even Wittgenstein -- unreadable to me -- understandable. It connects the dots between a bunch of big Names I had heard in my school days, in ways that make sense. And it has made me rethink the role of mathematics and logic in the real world. Perhaps they are not so completely divorced after all.

Image from Logicomix

The book is not perfect. Despite a profound and sympathetic understanding of the distracted math professor -- rehabilitating my poor logic teacher in my mind -- it relies on visual stereotypes for nonwhites in the very few panels in which they appear. This bothers me a great deal because the book is otherwise so full of thought and creative connections. It's not often that a story brings the wisdom of Athena to bridge the gap between the power of logic and our messy, inexplainable society, as this book does.

I recommend this book for anyone who likes to think, whether or not they have any interest in mathematics.


Thank you xkcd.com for the "Purity" strip.

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