Book review: Logicomix

2 Apr

Logicomix is a Greek book which charts the history of mathematical logic during the 19th and 20th centuries. Although this prospect may sound as enticing as a piranha pedicure, please bear with me – for this is no ordinary book about maths. There’s mystery! There’s suspense! There’s even some romance!

Logicomix has two key features which helped to propel it towards the summit of bestseller charts when it was released in 2009. Firstly, the history of logic is recounted as an enthralling tale about the men who devoted themselves to this mathematical quest. Secondly, the story is presented in a beautifully-drawn comic book form – think Tintin if he swapped his dog for an abacus.

The comic’s superhero is Bertrand Russell: philosopher, logician and all-round superbrain, whose speech to an American university in 1939 acts as the story’s backbone. Beginning with his early life at Pembroke Lodge, Russell describes his own mathematical journey and the great minds that he meets along the way.

Bertrand Russell’s Eureka moment…discovering a paradox in set theory

Logicomix works well both as a general history of logic and as a stand-alone tale about the lives of some extraordinary men: this is not just a book for mathematicians. Logic is a complex subject, and the authors do their best to make it accessible to the uninitiated reader. This was the first time I’d come across a lot of these concepts (e.g. set theory and Russell’s paradox), but the lucid illustrations helped a great deal. The book also takes regular breathers from the main storyline to illustrate discussions between the authors, Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou.

A recurring theme throughout Logicomix is the apparent connection between logic and madness, not the first time that this has been noticed:

“It cannot be a complete coincidence that several outstanding logicians of the twentieth century found shelter in asylums at some time in their lives: Cantor, Zermelo, Gödel, Peano, and Post are some.” (Gian-Carlo Rota, Italian mathematician)

Among these, Cantor and Gödel play a central role in Logicomix. Georg Cantor suffered from chronic depression and spent much of his later life in sanatoriums, and Kurt Gödel died from starvation due to an obsessive fear of being poisoned. Bertrand Russell himself was no stranger to mental instability: he revealed in his autobiography that a lonely adolescence led to him to contemplate suicide and, later in life, his eldest son was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Russell and Hyde

It’s this moving, challenging theme that gives Logicomix it’s depth and leaves a lasting impression. It was touching to read about the actual mathematicians responsible for the proofs and equations; their trials, successes, and seemingly endless thirst for mathematical truth. I heartily recommend Logicomix to anyone who has a passing interest in maths but is discouraged by dusty textbooks and chalky blackboards.

One Response to “Book review: Logicomix”

  1. civiltalker April 29, 2011 at 1:02 pm #

    Hi James,
    I was going to buy this book a while ago, but never got round to it. Maybe I’ll get it after all!
    Michelle

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