Charles Petzold

Reading “Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth”

October 8, 2009
New York, N.Y.

In 1957, a group of mathematicians programmed a "Logic Theory Machine" to prove theorems from Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell's massive Principia Mathematica, published over 40 years earlier. On learning of this feat, Bertrand Russell reputedly wrote "I am delighted to know that 'Principia Mathematica' can now be done by machinery. I wish Whitehead and I had known of this possibility before we wasted 10 years doing it by hand."

Bertrand Russell lived a long, long life. Born in 1872, the grandson of a former Prime Minister of Britain, Russell's first mathematics papers were published during the realm of Victoria. Already in his 40s during the First World War, Russell was imprisoned for antiwar activities, but he lived long enough to lead campaigns against nuclear weapons, and to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. When Russell died in 1970 (on my 17th birthday, by the way), he was already one of heroes — a towering intellect and complex public figure of deep moral authority.

So I suppose that makes me the perfect audience for Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth (Bloomsbury, 2009), an immensely enjoyable gorgeous graphic novel about Bertrand Russell and the quest to establish the logical foundations of mathematics.

I was skeptical about Logicomix, particularly when it began with a meeting in Athens between its two authors, Apostolos Doxiadis (author of Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture) and Christos Papadimitriou (Professor of Computer Science at UC Berkeley and author of Turing: A Novel About Computation), who then join the husband and wife artist and colorist team of Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna, and visual research Anne Bardy, all already deep into work on the very graphic novel we're reading but with the working title Foundational Quest.

Ascending a layer further into self-reference, the main narrative uses a second framing device. On September 4, 1939, the very date that Britain declares war on Germany, Bertrand Russell is arriving at an American university to deliver a lecture on "The Role of Logic in Human Affairs." Bertie (the character in Logicomix) uses this opportunity to tell the story of his life in mathematics.

Both framing devices and the layers of embedded narrative work extremely well. This is where graphic novels excel. The creators of Logicomix almost immediately charm us with their wit and their winks, and frequently pop back into the narrative to discuss and debate the history they're portraying, almost functioning as a traditional, let us say, Greek chorus. In particular, Apostolos — I'll refer to the characters in Logicomix by their first names — wants to pursue a "logic and madness" theme in the novel that Christos resists.

At one point, Christos is back in Berkeley and writes a letter to Apostolos (another framing device) telling a story about when he was in Athens and travelled with Anne to a rehearsal of a performance Aeschylus' Oresteia for which she's made masks for the actors. They soon get lost in a once familiar but now mysterious Athens neighborhood, leading to encounters with prostitutes and muggers. At first it all seems completely irrelevant except for the lessons the characters derive about algorithms, the difference between maps and reality, and the deeply human wisdom of Aeschylus cutting through the impersonal logic of mathematics.

Bertrand Russell's personal narrative begins with his childhood, continues with his discovery of Euclid, and gathers steam with his years at Cambridge. At the turn of the century, Bertie takes a rather fanciful trip across Europe — the authors freely admit that they fabricated the details here — meeting Gottlob Frege, Georg Cantor (in a madhouse, no less), and arriving in Paris in August 1900 to attend the Second International Congress of Mathematicians and hear David Hilbert deliver his famous address challenging the mathematicians of the 20th century to solve 23 outstanding problems.

A good chunk of this history will be familiar to readers of chapters 2 and 3 of my book The Annotated Turing: A Guided Tour through Alan Turing's Historic Paper on Computability and the Turing Machine, but how can I possibly compete with the dialogue, human emotions and conflicts, and the lovely drawings based on Anne Bardy's extensive research into period locations?

I particularly enjoyed the introduction of what's come to be known as the Russell Paradox — does the set of all sets that do not contain themselves contain itself? Logicomix relates it to the Barber Paradox — a barber shaves everyone who does not shave himself so who shaves the barber? — and then a book that catalogues all books that do not refer to themselves — and of course the point is made in this very self-referential novel that that book does not list Logicomix!

Even more fun is when Whitehead and Russell team up to write Principia Mathematica, almost destroying themselves in the process. With terrific dramatic foreshadowing, Kurt Gödel shows up as a 4-year old on page 196 (yes, he's already wearing glasses with circular lenses) and then as a graduate student on page 273, ready to deliver his destructive missile 12 pages later. No matter how well you know the story, in Logicomix it seems very fresh.

Close to the end, the authors debate whether the outcome of this "epic search for truth" makes the story end happily or tragically. Christos clearly sees the ending of this story as a happy one, for it led directly to the creation of the computer. If I'm reading this correctly, he even convinces Apostolos that a sequel to Logicomix is in order, one that would of course feature as its main character someone equally as interesting as Bertrand Russell — Alan Turing, of course.

That sounds like a great idea to me, and I am already totally psyched.