Nov 20, 2012

Comics in the Classroom: Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth

I'm a pretty firm believer in the idea of using comics as educational material. By this, I mean beyond the English lit and art courses, which have used comics such as Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, and Maus for years. The idea is that a lot of students find textbooks dense and hard to grasp, so why not present the material in a more inviting, entertaining, and digestible way? Why can't we use comics for history classes, for science classes, for math classes?

Oh, right, there aren't really that many. So I'm gonna take the opportunity here to start a new column talking about comics that could be used conceivably within a classroom setting. Welcome to the first edition of Comics in the Classroom.

Today I'm gonna talk about Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, by Apostolos Doxiadis (writer), Christos H. Papadimitriou (consultant), Alecos Papadatos (illustrator), Annie Di Donna (colorist), and Anne Bardy (letterer). This book tells the story of Bertrand Russell, the famous mathematician/philosopher/logician, and his quest for logic, which he had hoped would lead him to the foundations of mathematics, which he equates with the search for truth.

As a mathematics and economics major, I was always distanced from but fascinated with the mingling of mathematics and philosophy.  As citizens of the 21st century, we take machines like computers and concepts such as numbers and infinity for granted, but that wasn't always the way, and in fact those concepts — as well as the concept on which computers run, logic — have driven many an intelligent man to asylums and been so consuming that entire lives have been devoted to the study of their origins, foundations, and inner workings.

At the heart of Bertrand Russell's career as a logician is the Russell Paradox, which asks the question of whether or not a set containing sets that are not members of themselves, contains itself. (It works under the same logic as someone saying "This statement is false.") It's self-referential, and as such, the Logicomix team makes the book self-referential. It shows Russell in the United States on September 3, 1939, the same day Britain declared war on Germany, about to give a talk about logic when protesters tell him to stand up for pacifism and non-involvement. He then uses this lecture to relate his life story, the main story of the book. But it's also framed in another story: that of the Logicomix team putting the book together, displaying the arguments that they had in the direction of the book and how they made certain creative decisions and discussing what certain bits oft he book mean. Yes, in any other book with any other type of subject matter, this would seem quite a clumsy, sledgehammer type of storytelling, but since self-reference is intrinsic to the very topic of the book, it works nicely here. The arguments presented by Doxiadis and Papadimitriou also work toward emphasizing the futility of looking for a set, unchangeable answer when it comes to certain aspects of life (or life, in general).

The art by Papadatos is appropriately cartoonish, because some of the subject matter (namely how logic leads into insanity) is pretty heavy. (See: the masking effect.) He also employs multiple styles depending on the subject matter, using a more exaggerated, slapstick style when Russell explains mathematical theories and ideas. The color palette is vibrant and brings to life what may otherwise be a dull subject, making it more inviting.

Although the Logicomix team openly admit that they take liberties with the history and the facts (for example, Russell had a brother, who is not at all in the book), hoping for this to be more of a story than just a cold look at facts, the ideas behind the scenes and the explanations of the theorems and ideas set forth are, while not in-depth and detailed, accurate (as far as I know), and that makes this book a pretty good one for some math or philosophy courses hoping to introduce these concepts (sets, infinity, logic). Complete with a glossary in the back comprising concepts, mathematicians, and philosophers, Logicomix is a pretty good introduction to the connection between math and philosophy and could be used in colleges as supplementary reading material for courses that deal with these topics.

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