Math in middle age

Math in middle age
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First Published: Sat, Feb 20 2010. 12 14 AM IST

Adds up: Logicomix brings home the truth about math problems.
Adds up: Logicomix brings home the truth about math problems.
Updated: Sat, Feb 20 2010. 12 14 AM IST
Everyone has a midlife crisis.
Mine, funnily enough, is math.
Funnily, because I studied pure math in college, the kind of stuff where you spend 30 minutes proving that 1 is indeed greater than zero and then another 45 proving that 2 is greater than 1.
One did this by assuming the reverse (that 0 was greater than 1 and 1 greater than 2). Then, you would proceed logically from this assumption till you arrived at something totally illogical. Or absurd. And since the result was absurd, the process would go, the original assumption must have been wrong.
There is a name for this technique—reductio ad absurdum.
I don’t remember but I may have written about the agonies of this kind of math earlier too—it has obviously left deep scars.
Interestingly, over the past few months, I have rediscovered math. One of the finest books I have read in the recent past is The Calculus Wars: Newton, Leibniz, and the Greatest Mathematical Clash of All Time by Jason Socrates Bardi. So, it seems in the fitness of things that I restart my column for Lounge with a graphic novel on math, Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou.
Logicomix, published towards the end of 2009, isn’t just any other graphic novel. It is among the best I have read (and believe me, constant reader, I have read a few). I was so taken in by the book that I presented the first copy I bought to a friend whose daughter is into math. And then, because I couldn’t stand the emptiness in my library, I went out and bought another copy.
One of the reasons I gave the first copy away to a young student is because I believe that school takes all the fun out of math.
The early mathematicians were tricksters, magicians and philosophers, but do you get any of that in school?
That is one of the things that makes Logicomix special.
Adds up: Logicomix brings home the truth about math problems.
At one level, the book is about Bertrand Russell and his early work as a mathematician, during which he shook the foundations of logic and math by coming up with the famous Russell’s Paradox (the one about the barber in a town which has a strict law that everyone must shave that says “those who don’t shave themselves are shaved by the barber” which makes it impossible for the barber to shave himself for then it would mean that “he is shaved by the man who shaves only those who don’t shave themselves”).
Russell came across the paradox while looking for a basic truth on which all of math and logic could be based. It was in search of it that he authored Principia Mathematica, which, in all likelihood, dealt with the kind of proofs I have written about at the beginning of this piece.
It may be easy for us to dismiss this search as a foolish quest for a non-existent thing, but remember, this was the early part of the 20th century, a time when everyone, as evident from the galaxy of famous mathematicians who walk through the pages of Logicomix, was obsessed with this.
Doxiadis and Papadimitriou, who are already rock stars of sorts among the nerds of the world—the two have separately written novels on math—say this story simply (helped by the fact that the comic is presented as one about the two of them collaborating with two artists for a comic about Bertrand Russell and the search for mathematical truth).
The art, by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna, is functional and quietly effective. Logicomix deals with a complex subject and at first sight, the art, more Tintin than Watchmen, seems out of place, till you read on (the book is almost 350 pages long), and realize that nothing else would have worked as well.
Logicomix is a book that requires dedicated reading. Was it worth it?
I would think so. I finally understood what we were trying to do in those math proofs.
And I realized why it mattered.
R. Sukumar, editor, Mint, restarts Cult Fiction as a fortnightly column in Lounge. Write to him at cultfiction@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Feb 20 2010. 12 14 AM IST