Bertrand Russell is an unexpected comic book hero, but then, "Logicomix" is full of surprises.
It's a graphic novel about an abstruse intellectual quest involving some of the greatest mathematicians and philosophers of the 20th century, and it's told as a story within a story within a story. But you don't need a background in symbolic logic and meta- fiction to enjoy this entertaining work.
The story is recounted in human terms, and the book carries the reader over potential rough spots with a colorful, clean-lined drawing style derived from the work of Tintin artist Hergé. And 26 pages of notes are appended for those who want to bone up on subjects like predicate calculus, set theory and the "Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus."
"Logicomix" is about the search for the logical foundation of mathematics, the great scientific dream of the early 20th century, motivated by the conviction that, in the words of one character, "the world is totally understandable by reason."
The authors were determined not to create an academic exercise in intellectual history but a tale based on passions. "Logicomix" is set in a world of frightened children, love affairs, shattered dreams, professional jealousies and more than a smattering of insanity.
For Russell, the book's central figure, the quest is for an unshakable starting point, a solid basis for absolute knowledge. Russell is driven at least partly by personal demons: He was raised by a rigid grandmother and early on learned of a strain of insanity in his family.
"Logicomix's" writers know their stuff. Novelist Apostolos Doxiadis has a strong mathematics background: His "Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture" merges fiction and math. Co-author Christos H. Papadimitriou is a professor of computer science at UC Berkeley and author of "Turing (A Novel About Computation)."
Both men, along with "Logicomix's" two artists, appear in the book, with Papadimitriou taking on the role of kibitzer, challenging his co-writer on matters of both form and content. "We thought it would be a funny way to bring out some of the contradictions in the story," Papadimitriou says.
Among the topics the authors argue about are the book's theme of "logic from madness." A startling number of those involved in the quest became unhinged, like Georg Cantor and Gottlob Frege.
The book doesn't offer a definitive answer, Papadimitriou says, but "it's a fact you can't ignore. Maybe five of the 10 greatest logicians of that era ended up psychotic, and the rest had brushes with insanity. Bertrand Russell, who was a paragon of sanity, lived all his life in fear of madness. He had a schizophrenic son. (Mathematician) David Hilbert had a schizophrenic son. It makes the story very tragic. But it also provides the force that propels Russell, and in some sense the book itself."
In the book, the Papadimitriou character wonders about the choice of the graphic novel format. The real Papadimitriou says: "That was not my idea, to do a comic book. I was not into this stuff. I had read 'Maus,' but that's about it."
When the authors began working on the book eight years ago, Apostolos sent him a package of eight graphic novels. "I was really hooked immediately," says Papadimitriou. "For a historical novel, which 'Logicomix' is, (the format) really works. In a nongraphic historical novel, you really waste so much time giving the texture of the era, the environment, the atmosphere. But it's so easy to do in this format that you can really focus on the story and the characters."
In the book, the men even disagree about how the story turns out. For Doxiadis, the quest was a failure and a tragedy, but to Papadimitriou it ended happily with the development of computers.
'Failure of the quest'
"After Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem shattered all hope for total certainty in mathematics, it basically signaled the total failure of the quest," said Papadimitriou. "Several mathematicians tried to sharpen this negative result and show that even for theorems that have proofs, there is no mechanical way of finding (the proof).
"But then, to prove there is no mechanical way, the mathematicians had to say what a mechanical way is. So suddenly in the mid-'30s, definitions of what a computer could be, or should be, started emerging all over the globe. The most influential definition was Alan Turing's. During the Second World War, Turing built what was in many ways the world's most powerful computer to break the German naval code."