peteg's blog - noise - books - 2010 09 16 Logicomix

Doxiadis, Papadimitriou, Papadatos, Donna: Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth

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Kai lent this to me. I think he got it in Europe and read it on the plane back, presumably on the basis that it was co-authored by one of the big computation complexity theorists, Christos Papadimitriou.

This graphic novel covers the development of symbolic logic from the late 19th century until World War II, using Bertrand Russell as the narrator, and does a much better job of covering the big man than Monk's biography. It ends with Gödel's result, and the return of pervasive warfare in Europe. Mentioned are the Vienna Circle (but not Karl Popper), von Neumann, Turing and the computer, Frege and the historical link between logic and madness, and other things. It's a shame they left Popper out as the story about him, Wittgenstein (who is mentioned) and the poker is priceless. Also he killed logical positivism far deader than the bullets of some fascist.

The focus here is certainly on the people, and so motivations and the relative import of things suffer a bit. That Russell and Whitehead took 362 pages to prove that 1 + 1 = 2 is held up to the standard ridicule, and that is unworthy of this text. (The same could probably be plausibly shown from scratch in Isabelle in less than 100 lines. That's progress!) Conversely Papadimitriou (the character) helps to provide enough future-history that negative interpretations don't overwhelm the narrative; for example, the main story finishes just on the cusp of the realisation of mechanical computation, and he points out that Turing's work was instrumental in the Allies victory. More central to the narrative is his observation that Russell's work was a necessary precursor to Gödel's, and so it cannot be judged a failure.

I don't read graphic novels much, and if Kai had not foist this on me I would not have sought it out. It's a pleasant, sometimes fun and all-too-quick read. The topic is far too large for this kind of treatment.