Logicomix: An Epic Search for the Truth by Apostolous Doxiadis & Christos Papadimitriou
Marcus Chown enjoys a graphic maths lesson
Logicomix: An Epic Search for the Truth by Apostolous Doxiadis & Christos Papadimitriou (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
On the face of it, a story (even a story in pictures) of the struggle to put mathematics on firm, logical foundations may sound esoteric and dull. But, actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Our daily lives have been utterly transformed by the device that rose Phoenix-like from the ashes of the mathematicians’ dashed hopes – the computer.
It all began with the pathological paradoxes unleashed in the late 19th century by Georg Cantor and his theory of the infinite. In an attempt to banish such monstrosities forever from the “perfect” garden of mathematics, the great German mathematician David Hilbert envisaged a kind of sausage machine that at one end could take in self-evident truths (axioms) and then, by the application of the rules of logic, at the other end squeeze out mathematical truths (theorems).
Bertrand Russell, the hero of this graphic novel, took on Hilbert’s Herculean task, proving in a mere 362 pages of his Principia Mathematica that 1 + 1 = 2 (and you thought you were crap at maths!). But all this turned out to be in vain because of a bombshell dropped by an obscure German logician. Kurt Gödel stunned the world of mathematics by showing that, whatever axioms are used, there are always theorems which are true that can never be proved to be true from the axioms – things that are true for absolutely no reason at all. Mathematics is built on sand and there is nothing anyone will ever be able to do about it.
This is monumentally hard stuff. I know because I covered it in my book The Never-Ending Days of Being Dead, when I wrote about Gregory Chaitin’s “Omega”, the number that, incredibly, encodes the answer to every mathematical question that anyone could ever ask. It nearly fried my brains! But the subject is also deeply, deeply fascinating. Which must be why Apostolous Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou have chosen it as the topic for their unusual graphic novel.
They and their artists must be congratulated for bringing this key chapter in the history of ideas to life with a page-turning narrative and sumptuous illustrations. We look over the shoulders of the main characters as they struggle not only with the most challenging abstract concepts known to man but also with their own not inconsiderable demons – the obsessiveness that wrecks their private lives and the madness that is so often a feature of the Mr Spock world they inhabit. And all this is set against the backdrop of two catastrophic world wars and some of the most turbulent and dreadful events of the 20th century.
This is the first graphic novel I have ever read and I was impressed. Against the odds, the authors and artists have brought a tough but fascinating subject to life. Logicomix provides a window on to an arcane and mind-blowing world of logic and surprising truths. It might just intrigue you enough to go and find out more.