You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth is a graphic novel created by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou about Bertrand Russell and his quest to get to the core of logical certainty. The novel is most biographical about Russell's education and life, with tangents into the logical and mathematical issues that he and other scholars were struggling with in the early Twentieth Century.

One of the themes of the book is the relationship between mathematics and insanity, since so many great mathematicians have gone insane. Does one cause the other? Does the search for more and more absolute knowledge cause one to lose the foundations of reality? Russell also struggles with this at times, espcially since there is madness in his own family.

Russell sees great promise in the mathematics of set theory, and seeks to expand it to create the foundations of arithmetic and thus all mathematics. He comes up with what is known as Russell's paradox: he defines a set that contains all sets that do not contain themselves, then asks, does this set contain itself? This is better known as the barber paradox. In a town, all men either shave themselves, or if they don't shave themselves, are shaved by the barber. This question is, who shaves the barber? If he does not shave himself, then he is shaved by the barber, but since he is the barber, he would be shaving himself. This paradox gets to the core of the nature of self-referential definitions.

Russell spends years with his friend and fellow mathematician Alfred North Whitehead to create the Principia Mathematica, a scholarly work whose goal is to define the foundations of mathematics and logic. One interesting setback is when the publisher can't find anyone who will be paid to proofread the book so decides that if nobody will be paid to read it, nobody will pay to read it. Reluctantly they paid for its publication and it proves to be an important scholarly work. Of course, Kurt Gödel publishes his discovery that no such system can be complete and provable, that in any complete system there are unprovable statements. This was a major setback to Russell and Whitehead, and it shook the world of mathematics.

Reading this book made me want more math in it, for it is light on the math and only provides a few simple examples so that the lay reader will understand the scope of the problems involved. This is not like Gödel, Escher, Bach, which is a much deeper dive into the issues of sets and the nature of self-reference. This is mostly biography and deals with Russell's personal relationships such as his marriages and his friendship with Whitehead's son. The framing story is Russell's speech at an American university, but the story also makes references to the current day as the authors jump in to make explanations or provide more context. Sometimes they discuss the questions of madness or how the mathematical questions impact us. The end contains a performance of teh end of Aeschylus' trilogy the Oresteia, wherein Athena transforms the history of revenge killings into a system of state-supported justice. While an interesting coda, I didn't quite understand the relevance to mathematics and logic and Russell's great issues. But the book is an interesting look at Russell's life and the logical questions that he proposed and tried to answer. A-

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