Book Review: Logicomix

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis et al.

Logicomix is a graphic novel about the quest to provide a rigorous, logical foundation for mathematics in the form of a historical narrative. That description alone was suitably left-field enough for me to be immediately interested, and it turns out the book was enjoyable enough that I finished it in one sitting, which made for a very pleasant evening.

The principal protagonist of the story is Bertrand Russell, who acts as the narrator, going from his early days living under the tyrannical rule of his dogmatic grandmother in the late 19th century to the first days of the Second World War. There’s also a meta-story occurring at the same time, where the authors and illustrators discuss the story (it wouldn’t do to have a story about the history of 20th century logic not be self-referential now, would it?). Other important characters we meet along the way are Frege, Cantor, Whitehead, Godel, von Neumann, and particularly Wittgenstein.

You shouldn’t expect to learn any amount of logic from the book, since Doxiadis states plainly that the main thrust is a human drama, with emphasis on the correlation between logicians and madness. Logicomix would make for a decent drinking game where you take a shot every time someone descends into madness. That’s not a criticism though, since the purpose of the book wasn’t to teach logic, just a warning in case you wandered in to it with the wrong intentions. Though, I think the focus of madness was a bit heavy-handed, since there were certainly main mathematicians, philosophers, and logicians who didn’t completely lose it.

One great thing about showing off history in a comic format is that the events and personalities are visually striking, such that the ideas and relations and settings more easily stick in your brain. I’d like to see more of the same, like the story of Newton and the Calculus Wars or the voyages and intellectual struggles of Darwin in this kind of format. It’s just good damn fun.

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