Tuesday, December 4, 2012

This Sentence is Lying to You

Perhaps the nerdiest thing about me -- and it's a competitive field -- is that I love books about mathematics, especially stuff on number theory, infinity or the lives of famous mathematicians. On the other hand, missing from my list of nerd traits is a love of graphic novels. Not that I have anything against them, I just mostly haven't been able to get into them. In fact, I want to love graphic novels, so when I heard that there was a graphic novel about math, I thought "Here's my in."

The title of this post is one of my favorite paradoxes. If it's true then it has to be false, and if it's false than it has to be true. And it's not just a joke, but a serious conundrum that if taken too an extreme threatens to undermine the functions of language. Logicomix is a graphic novel that tells the story of a man who tried to deal with such paradoxes. Primarily a biography of Bertrand Russell, an English mathematician, logician and philosopher who tried to bring the rigor of mathematics to the arena of logic, Logicomix relates his quest to develop a universal and consistent language of logic. This quest would lead ultimately to the technologies of computing that have so radically changed our world over the last several decades. But it was hardly a straight-line path. In fact, many of the minds that contributed to the discussion were destroyed by it, driven to insanity (or perhaps driven to logic by insanity). Whether logic is intimately connected to madness is one of the central themes of the book.

But the book also grapples with many other issues of mathematics, logic and philosophy. The story, which is regularly interrupted by images of the book creators themselves struggling with how best to tell it, has as it's central narrative Russell speaking to a group of pacifists about his decision to support Great Britain's involvement in World War II. He tells the story of his whole life, from his abandonment as a child to his relationships with many of the great minds of the early twentieth century, in order to finally ask the question of how useful logic is in making decisions of monumental importance. We meet some amazing people including Gregor Cantor, Kurt Godel, Ludvig Wittgenstein and Jon von Neumann all of whom contribute speech bubbles to the discussion.

The images are simple yet intriguing and use a variety of visual techniques to illustrate the narrative.

If the summary above sounds heady and boring, well, it is heady, but it's not boring at all. I couldn't put the thing down. For my taste, it doesn't have quite enough math in it -- the central mathematical discovery of the tale is almost entirely glossed over. Instead the story focuses on Russell's relationships, personality and struggles with philosophy and morality. I found myself rooting for him throughout, hoping he would find what he was looking for.

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