This comic is no joke

Based on the story of the ‘foundational quest’ in mathematics, this graphic novel takes the reader through the protagonist’s journey in search of the ultimate truth and shows how madness and logic can sometimes go hand in hand.

Published: 08th July 2013 01:30 PM  |   Last Updated: 08th July 2013 01:30 PM   |  A+A-


When you think of comics, what comes to your mind? Superheroes in colourful tights fighting bizarre villains? Tales of adventure, stories from myths and legends? Well, I’ve just read a comic — or a graphic novel, if you prefer, that’s a little different. It’s called Logicomix, by Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna. It’s about the life of Betrand Russell, a British mathematician, logician, philosopher and political activist. More importantly, it is about his quest to find a way to understand the world through reason and through rational thinking.

Russell was raised by his grandmother who was deeply religious. She imposed all sorts of rules and regulations on him and passed on a lot of fears to him. As he grew older, he discovered how science, mathematics and logic could offer a more rational and clear-eyed view of the world. This helped him to overcome the effects of his grandmother’s excessive strictness and see new possibilities in the world. The graphic novel traces how Russell came to realise that mathematics underlies the physical sciences — yes, the same mathematics that some of us find so irksome in the classroom! Russell studied mathematics in college, and learned that the foundation of mathematics was in the form of axioms — basic assumptions that were supposed to be intuitively or obviously true. An example of an axiom, taken from the work of the ancient Greek mathematical pioneer Euclid, is that things which are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another. Russell, however, was dissatisfied with his beloved rationality ultimately being built on a foundation of assumptions or intuitions. He felt that even the fundamental basis of mathematics could be logically supported. He spent years working towards a completely logical basis for mathematics, which was known as the ‘foundational quest’, together with his collaborator, Alfred North Whitehead.

When they finally released three volumes of a book called ‘Principia Mathematica’, they hoped that they had finally given mathematics a logical basis.

But it wasn’t that simple. Bright young thinkers like Kurt Godel and Ludwig Wittgentstein found flaws in their attempt. Russell felt that his life’s work had been a failure — and in some ways it was. Yet, as this graphic novel shows, it still served as a landmark in the history of mathematics and logic. Eventually, the ideas introduced in this book helped create an approach to logic that would form the foundation for computer science. So in a way, Russell was one of the fathers of our modern, computerised world!

All this might sound like heavy going, and these are serious topics, but they are made engaging by the format. The art is colourful and attractive, and the book has interludes where the creators of the comic debate the issues they are talking about. In the process we see different viewpoints on logic, philosophy and the story of Russell’s quest for absolute truth. There is a great interlude where a logician who is one of the co-writers decides that he knows the way to a place he has never been to before just because he grew up in that neighbourhood and claims that the map of the area is ‘engraved on his neurons’ — a very illogical claim! We also see how Russell and other logicians often became very illogical in their personal life, and how madness and logic sometimes go hand in hand. Ultimately, we see that a balance between logical and intuitive or emotional ways of looking at the world are equally important. At the end of the novel, the writers and artists go to see a performance of the ancient Greek play, the Eumenides. In this play, the goddess Athena persuades the Furies, the goddesses of revenge, to forgive an accused man. We are shown how a new balance between rage and wisdom is forged, allowing justice to be done. This example of balancing different viewpoints reflects the idea that reason and intuition must be balanced in order to arrive at a broader idea of truth. Again, these are deep ideas but the beauty of this graphic novel is that it makes them easier to grasp, although eventually it is up to you to think about them yourself.

Note: due to the complexity of some of the concepts dealt with, this book is most suitable for readers of high school age or above.


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