Wednesday, February 24, 2010

foundational crisis

I recently started reading a collection of George Stiener's New Yorker essays. One of them, Ancient Shining Eyes begins with this paragraph:
On Winston Churchill's eightieth birthday, an English journal of opinion sent felicitations to "the second greatest living English-man." The panache and impertinence of the compliment lay in the omitted premise. But to logicians and radicals the missing name rang clear: it was that of Bertrand Russell. And the implicit judgement may stick. Indeed, it may reach well beyond English life. It looks as if the presence of Russell will come to inform the history of intelligence and feeling in European civilization between the eighteen-nineties and nineteen-fifties as does that of no other man. As no single presence has, perhaps, since Voltaire's.
...And now he has a comic book too.

There have been lots of reviews of Logicomix - an Epic Search for Truth on math blogs and elsewhere lately - there are some here and here.

Logicomix pulls together a narrative that situates and expands the search for the foundations of mathematics within the context of both the personal and mental lives of mathematicians and within the broader context of the global events that were happening around them.

The authors of Logicomix are experts at finding narrative in unlikely mathematical sources - one of the co-authors, Christos H. Papadimitriou, has posted a presentation that brings together two forms of expression that are generally seen to be at odds with each other - story telling and computer programming.

In addition to finding narrative in mathematics, the other co-author, Apostolos Doxiadis, has written about how he finds mathematics in narrative in his paper The Mathematical Logic of Narrative (see also his other essays).

The search for mathematics in narrative isn't new - it was at the core of the critical approach to literature favored by structuralists and semioticians that was being developed around the same time as the Logicomix story unfolded. In this other epic search for truth, literary critics sought to unearth the general coordinating principles of literature, often in terms of shared myths and archetypes (see for example, Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism). Some have argued that with the event of post-structuralism, this quest for a science or mathematics of narrative suffered the same collapse that the foundations of mathematics apparently suffered in the events described in Logicomix. The parallel ambitions and frustrations of these two very different intellectual quests are more than a little surprising - maybe its story would make a good graphic novel.