Thursday, September 3, 2009

Bertrand Russell: Leaping Tall Proofs in a Single Bound Variable

Back when I was a human larva, Bertrand Russell was one of the first philosophers I ever discovered, let alone read in any depth. I was raised moderately Catholic, but by the time I was 11 or 12, I was wrestling with nascent feelins that Catholicism--and indeed, all of religion--might be terribly inadequate. One day, while hanging out in a bookstore (yeah, I was that kind of 12 year old), I happened on a book called Why I'm Not a Christian. I read the titular essay right then and there and, after buying the book, soon devoured the rest of them. Russell's clear, lucid, humorous prose expressed all the doubts I'd been unable to put into words (and then some!) and exposed me to serious philosophy for the first time. I was hooked, and before long I was plowing through Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and every other piece of philosophy I could get my hands on. Though I'm not a logician--and though Russell's work on religion was only a very, very small part of his mostly logic-oriented corpus--I still have a soft-spot in my heart for him: he was my first doorway into what eventually would become a career.

That's why I'm so delighted to discover that two gentlemen (one of them a computer science professor at Berkeley!) are publishing a graphic novel--that's what you call you comic book if you want it to be taken seriously--about Russell's struggles with life, mathematics, philosophy, and his own tenuous sanity. Snip from the article about it in The Independent:

Through GE Moore at Cambridge, he discovered Leibniz and Boole, and became a logician. Through Alfred Whitehead's influence, he travelled to Europe and met Gottlob Frege, who believed in a wholly logical language (and was borderline insane) and Georg Cantor, the inventor of "set theory" (who was locked up in an asylum) and a mass of French and German mathematicians in varying stages of mental disarray. Back home he and Whitehead wrestled with their co-authored Principles of Mathematics for years, endlessly disputing the foundations of their every intellectual certainty, constantly harassed by Russell's brilliant pupil Wittgenstein.

If the subject matter seems a little arid, with its theories of types, paradoxes and abstruse language (calculus ratiocinator?), and if its recurring theme of how logic and madness are psychologically intertwined seems a touch gloomy, don't let that put you off. Logicomix tells its saga of human argumentation with such drama and vivid colour that it leaves the graphic novel 300 (Frank Miller's take on the Battle of Thermopylae) looking like something from Eagle Annual.

This sounds great--something like Wittgenstein's Poker with pictures. It looks like the book itself isn't available for preorder on Amazon (it's going to be released in Europe on September 7, and sometime after that in the United States), but you can sign up to be notified when it is available. This is certainly something that I'll be making room in my schedule to read!