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from saturday's books section

Three panels from Logicomix

The September issue of Harper's magazine features a piece by Mark Slouka lamenting the demise of the humanities in favour of math and science. "Let me be clear," Slouka writes in a careful effort to side with the angels, "I write this not to provide tinder to our latter-day inquisitors, ever eager to sacrifice the spirit of scientific inquiry in the name of some new misapprehension. That said, I see no contradiction between my respect for science and my humanist's discomfort with its ever-greater role in American culture. … The sciences march, largely untouched, under the banner of the inherently good. And this troubles me.

"It troubles me because there are many things 'math and science' do well, and some they don't. And one of the things they don't do well is democracy. They have no aptitude for it, no connection to it, really. Which hasn't prevented some in the sciences from arguing precisely the opposite, from assuming even this last, most ill-fitting mantle, by suggesting that science's spirit of questioning will automatically infect the rest of society."

It's the sort of impassioned plea that no doubt finds sympathetic ears - and elicits "hear, hear" harrumphing - in common rooms and faculty lounges across several continents. In Slouka's facile hands, it's an engaging argument . It's also deeply misbegotten, fundamentally Philistine and - moreover - nothing new. C.P. Snow was famously quoted half a century ago bemoaning the reverse mischaracterization: "I remember [British mathematician]G.H. Hardy once remarking to me in mild puzzlement, some time in the 1930s, 'Have you noticed how the word "intellectual" is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition which certainly doesn't include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me? It does seem rather odd, don't y' know.'"

In seeking to reconcile these two cultures talking so ardently past each other, I can offer no more powerful tonic than Logicomix, a graphic novel devoted at its heart to telling the story of Bertrand Russell's quest for the foundations of mathematics and, by extension, the bedrock of all rational thought. For a graphic novel (in fact, for any expositional form), its ambit is breathtaking.

Here we find a veritable murderers' row of philosophical and scientific inquirers and inquiry (in that sense, I posit math in her rightful place as the queen of the sciences). Giants such as Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege, G.E. Moore, Georg Cantor, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jules Poincaré, John Von Neumann, Alfred North Whitehead, Kurt Gödel and, most especially, Bertrand Russell march through its pages making complex arguments and living outsized, even heroic, lives at the centre of the great debates and events of the 20th century.

We watch as Wittgenstein butts heads with Russell over the central question of "the independent existence of a mathematical reality." In narrative boxes on a single panel, we read: "Wittgenstein barged into my rooms at 3 a.m. one night in extreme agony about some fine logical point. I warned him that he should beware: the way he was driving himself he could well go insane. But he said …" (We see Wittgenstein his arms waving excitedly over his head), "God prevent me from sanity," to which Russell responds in a cloud-like thought bubble - a pipe hanging languidly from his mouth, "God certainly will!"

Later, in a spectacular two-page spread, we read Russell's narration and see Wittgenstein standing alone amid the charred and burning ruin of a First World War battlefield: "Face to face with death, Wittgenstein arrived at his fundamental insight …" (in a thought bubble over his head as he stares into the sun blotted out by the smoke), "The meaning of the world does not reside in the world." To which Russell's narration responds, "Put a man on the brink of the abyss and - in the unlikely event that he doesn't fall into it - he will become either a mystic or a madman … which is probably the same thing!"

Logiccomix is throughout a mix of powerful ideas, ingenious storytelling, compelling illustration, wit and even a love story or three. (How could any narrative with Russell at its core not be?) And, more's the point, the common theme tying it all together and driving it on is an abiding curiosity about math. No thinking person could leave this book without recognizing the ineluctable connections between - in the most mundane sense - arithmetic and the humanities (and most particularly the ancient practice of democracy, a perfect antidote to Slouka's chicken-little maundering).

The authors - the fabulously monikered Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitrou - appear as characters/narrators in the story. They wrestle with the book's problems as much as do their historical heroes. It's a sort of extended and well-deserved curtain call for what I'm convinced to an arithmetic certainty is one of the most thought-provoking, entertaining books of the year.

Douglas Bell plays the French mathematician Jean Dieudonné in the film The Man Who Saved Geometry, which received its world broadcast premiere on TVO on Oct. 21.