Review: Logicomix

While it's sure to cost me some geek cred, I first have to admit that I've never before read a comic book or graphic novel of any type. I've read comic strips, of course, but that's about it.

Last fall, a review in the New York Times brought to my attention Logicomix, a graphic novel depicting the story of Bertrand Russell, the 20th century British mathematician, logician, and philosopher. While Russell is the central character, he is surrounded by a rich cast of mathematicians and philosophers, including Frege, Cantor, Hilbert, Poincare, Godel, Wittgenstein, and Russell's primary collaborator, Alfred Whitehead. Russell and Whitehead worked together for over a decade to write their Principia Mathematica, which hoped (and failed) to base mathematics on logic. (It took Russell and Whitehead 362 pages of painstaking logic to show that 1+1=2, a fact not at all lost in Logicomix.) Russell did manage to expose a fundamental flaw in set theory, now known as Russell's paradox. The paradox arises when considering a set of all sets that do not contain themselves. If that set is included in itself, then it is no longer contains only sets that do not contain themselves. If that set is not included in itself, then its collection of sets is incomplete. Russell and Whitehead tried to adjust set theory in a way that eliminated the paradox, but never successfully created the sound, logic-based foundation to mathematics they desired.

If math, philosophy, paradoxes, and tautologies seem a bit intimidating, Logicomix has a twice-layered narrative to tell their story in a way that adds layers of explanation and makes the content much more manageable. The highest narrative is at the level of the authors and illustrators themselves, discussing how they should tell their story. The story they tell is given from an older Bertrand Russell's perspective, giving a speech to war protesters near the beginning of World War II. By telling the story of how they described Russell telling his story, the authors give the reader time to understand the information, comprehend the vast amounts of time that passed, and appreciate the effort required by Russell and his colleagues to make progress on such a fundamental problem. Done simply with text this could get confusing, but the "scene" changes are made obvious by the illustrations.

In all, I liked Logicomix more than I expected and enjoyed the depiction of Russell and the other characters. The book isn't loaded with math, and I felt the understanding of Russell's paradox alone made it worth the read.

Buy from Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth