Bertrand Russell Superstar

Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject.
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The 1950 Nobel Laureate for Literature finds his true home in a Greek comic book that details the quest for the very foundation of maths
Apostolos Doxiadis has written the bestseller Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture, the story of a man who withdraws from the world to dwell on the conjecture that every even number is the sum of two prime numbers, for example 8= 5+3, 22= 17+5. The conjecture, by the way, is still unsolved.

A comic by another name looks much the same. We have seen the genre morph into a category called the graphic novel, but however pretentious its desire for a place on the high table of art, this has allowed the exploration of new themes and ideas, none quite so radical as Bertrand Russell transformed into a bestselling Greek comic book hero. Not that Russell is an unlikely candidate for intellectual super stardom. In the course of a public lecture he once claimed that if you admit one false fact you can prove anything. Someone in the audience threw him the challenge; If 4=5 then are you the Pope? Russell instantly responded, “if 4=5 then subtracting three from each side you get 1=2. Now since the Pope and I are two and 2=1, I am the Pope.”

Unsurprisingly, Russell confessed in his autobiography that though his keenest interests were sex, religion and mathematics, it was the wish to know more mathematics that kept him from suicide.

Russell was consumed by this quest. He wanted to place mathematics on a firm foundation, something most people had taken for granted before the 19th century. But this task began to reveal difficulties, one of which was uncovered by Russell himself. Logician Gottlob Frege had struggled with the problem for years using entities that we all studied in school called sets, when he received a letter from Russell in 1901. Consider the set of all sets that do not include themselves, does this set include itself? Russell asked. Try running this over in your mind: if the set includes itself it can’t include itself, and if it doesn’t include itself then it must and so on, a paradox without end, without any resolution.

Read all about it in Logicomix written among others by bestselling author Apostolos Doxiadis (the English translation is out worldwide soon). It is the story of ‘…the quest for the Foundations of Mathematics …a heroic intellectual adventure most of whose protagonists paid the price of knowledge with extreme personal suffering and even insanity… It is through Russell’s eyes that the plights of such great thinkers as Frege, Hilbert, Poincare, Wittgenstein and Godel come to life’.