Mathematicians as Comic book Superheroes

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth

by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou, with art by Alecos Papadatos and Annies Di Donna

Bookhunter

by Jason Shiga

Logicomix   Bookhunter

Can people learn math better through pictures? The authors of two graphic novels think so.

Logicomix

Are all logicians insane? Certainly not. But have all the greatest ones slipped their cogs? Looks like it.

Bertrand Russell had a thick vein of madness running through his family which he tapped into from time to time. Gottlob Frege thought the Jews had taken over the world via a grand conspiracy. Georg Cantor, who died in a nuthouse, was convinced that Joseph of Arimathea was Jesus’s old dad. Ludwig Wittgenstein was a loon. Alan Turing knocked himself off. And don’t even get me started on Kurt Gödel.

Gauss warned us. “Don’t deal directly with infinity. Never look at it face to face.” Brother, was he right. All of our crew had peered into the depths of mathematics, trying to find the bottom, where they were sure they would find certainty. But thinking too hard about these endlessly regressive theories is like staring at the sun too long. It burns. Or maybe it’s the other way around, and it’s the less stable that seek out work in logic?

The story of mathematics’ search for utter certainty is narrated by Russell, who uses his personal life and interactions with the figures who were active circa 1900, to tell the story of the birth of mathematical logic. This was the time of David Hilbert’s famous speech of twenty-three unsolved problems.

One of these was to cement the axiomatic approach to mathematics, whereby a set of simple beliefs (accepted without proof) could support every provable statement. There were some initial hopes that this could be accomplished, with Russell and Whitehead leading the pack with their (self-published) Principia Mathematica.

But slowly, paradoxes where noted, of those nasty self-referential kind, and others involving the weirdness of infinity (in all its flavors). Camps formed, some supporting the new uses of infinity and their application to Hilbert’s problems, and others suspicious of these man-made creations. (An excellent survey book is Morris Kline’s Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty.)

The war was bitter, but luckily not prolonged. It was ended when Kurt Gödel gave his infamous lecture on one of his incompleteness theorems. When Von Neumann heard it, he announced, “It’s all over.” And it was. Complete certainty would not be possible. Intuition and induction would, even must, keep their place.

The story is nicely told and dramatic. Some events are fictionalized, but not unreasonably;or do these liberties distract. Not every detail is there (nor are they in this review), but the book makes for a enjoyable introduction to the controversy.

The books ends with a helpful, fully fleshed-out glossary. Biographies for all the major players are there, as are well-written entries on pertinent mathematical topics. The drawing style is detailed and easy on the eye. A lot of effort was put into the coloring.

Bookhunter

The grizzled Library Marshal raised his shotgun and pointed it at a body-armor wearing SWAT team member. He said, “This could sting.” Blam! The blast drove the SWAT guy one way, and the marshal the other, backwards, sliding across the tiled floor of the bad guy’s apartment.

The bad guy was standing atop a pile of purloined palimpsests, which he had doused with gasoline and was threatening to ignite. The marshal skidded to a stop directly behind the thief, the shotgun jammed into the bad guy’s keister.

The marshal pulled the trigger!

Thus, Bookhunter starts with a fully drawn gross-out scene, inked in a calming brown shades, almost sepia. But it’s just the beginning to this odd graphic novel. See, tomes from the rare book room are still going missing. It’s a mystery!

James Shiga, a mathematician who turned to cartoons, demonstrates the curious obsessiveness of his breed in this, his first work, a mystery of who is stealing books from a big-city library in 1973.

No minutia is left unexplored. There are long discourses of file cabinets manufacturer’s tags; details of the card catalogs; the workings of photostatic records and microfiche; the operations of room-sized computers with tape reels, record drums, and snatches of what appears to be COBOL; and even more on binding techniques and circulation cards. And, of course, void patterns in dust.

These are the clean shadows over which an object once lay. One “looks like it’s from a standard 60yd roll of filament tape, minus about 20yds. I’m guessing Demco Utility Glass.” An important clue, that. From my memory of crawling around Okinawa’s antiquated POTS wiring, I can verify the details of ancient phone switches, on which hinges another vital plot point.

Other than the curious situation and geeky detail, the book runs along the lines of every TV detective show you’ve ever seen. The novel even ends with a Dragnet-like memo explaining what became of the participants.

A weird, but compelling graphic novel with a distinct drawing style. More newspaper-cartoon than Marvel superhero. Check it out from your library, today!

4 Comments

  1. “their (self-published) Principia Mathematica”
    Ouch!! Just as well they are both dead, otherwise it would be loaded slide-rules at dawn.

    Surprising, I am 4th on the wit list for Logicomix. 8 out of 40-odd libraries have it. I amy have to spend some time at Borders. Bookhunter is in only 1 local library and I am #1 on that list.

    .

  2. Bernie,

    The lack of publisher took up a few pages in the books. Nobody could see the value in the strange manuscript. Both Whitehead and Russell were loaded, so it didn’t sting them any to put it out.

  3. Matt:
    I recall the story. Given the cost of printing the 3 volumes plus can you imagine the effort to proof it, I suspect the publishers made the right call – I am surprised it went to a second edition.
    My recollection is that Russell went through most of his money with his various projects and marriages and needed his very popular biography – which is very good – to fund these activities.

  4. Mathematician/cartoonists don’t move me much. But I am a big fan of Piet Hein. Perhaps you could review his “grooks” volumes which, I think, are back in print. T.T.T (read the book)
    David C.

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