Sunday, November 15, 2009
An Epic Search for Truth
By Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna
Bloomsbury. 347 pp. Paperback, $22.95
Though it may serve as a primer on early 20th-century philosophy and mathematics, "Logicomix" is no textbook -- it's a comic book. "The form is perfect for stories of heroes in search of great goals!" exclaims one co-author to the other. In this case, the superhero is the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and the adventure is his quest for a rational foundation to mathematics and logic, from his childhood in 1870s England to the eve of World War II. Along the way, we also catch glimpses of philosophical luminaries like Gödel and Wittgenstein -- and of the madness to which so many of the discipline's great thinkers succumbed, and which Russell himself feared all his life.
A clever framing story, set in Athens and starring the authors themselves, clarifies the more complicated ideas for the lay reader, as the writers helpfully explain the philosophical issues to their bewildered artists. Stepping back into the book at the end, the authors find a poetic counterpoint for Russell's journey in Aeschylus' "Oresteia." The story -- and Russell's philosophical evolution -- comes to a head days after the Nazi invasion of Poland. Now in the United States, Russell, who was jailed for his pacifist activism during World War I, lectures to a nervous American audience about the impotence of logic in the face of tyranny. "Logicomix" is an engaging, energetic work that makes big ideas accessible without dumbing them down.
-- Dan Kois