Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty
IF THE life of Apostolos Doxiadis were ever set to film, its most triumphant scene would come only moments before its tragedy. The fifteen-year-old Apostolos, just admitted to the Columbia University in New York to study mathematics, leads his father, internationally renowned architect Konstantinos Doxiadis, up a staircase to his tutor’s office.
Describing the scene in middle age, Doxiadis is still overcome with the emotion of that moment.
“I was showing him the way going up to Professor [Samuel] Eilenberg’s office and I had the sense that I was inducting him into this temple of mathematical wisdom. I looked at his expression as I was leading the way, his little son, and I felt an exhilaration that I can still feel.”
Months later, the father he had spent his life trying to impress was struck down by Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“The last two or three years of his life he couldn’t speak, he couldn’t communicate. So he was out of my life precisely at that point when I had matured, I had proven my worth to him.”
To the fresh observer, Apostolos Doxiadis is as accomplished as they come. The Independent credited him with inventing “mathematical fiction” after the 1998 English edition of Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture (a distinction that annoys him – “Moby Dick is not Whaling fiction”). Last year he published his first graphic novel, Logicomix, which tells the story of Bertrand Russell’s search for the logical foundation of mathematics. He established a volunteer group, Thales and Friends, to encourage high-school students to read books for pleasure, not the national curriculum, and is about to begin work on a new book.
But to the young Apostolos, as to many, his father was a man of mythical proportions: “Every young boy can see his father as a giant, and when he happens to be one it’s even more difficult.”
Konstantinos Doxiadis became Athens’ chief town planner a year after graduation. He was invited to address Congress on the Future of Urbanisation; his company, Doxiadis Associates, built cities in Africa and Asia from scratch. Pakistan’s government turned to him to design Islamabad in 1959. He even attempted to create a new academic discipline, Oikistics (or Ekistics) – an integration of sociology, engineering and urban planning.
The absent father is a consistent preoccupation throughout Apostolos Doxiadis’ work. Bertrand Russell’s father died when he was barely four. The hero of Uncle Petros is a teenager whose father barely registers. Thales and Friends was set up to help nurture young Greek minds deprived of mentoring in the public school system.
Doxiadis doesn’t deny that much of his work represents self-therapy. His overarching ambition to join the pantheon of mathematicians from Euclid to Hilbert ended in ruins, and he dropped out of Columbia after six years. He describes writing Uncle Petros as a process of working out “my own disappointment at not becoming a mathematician… I realised after I wrote it that my trauma around having abandoned mathematics disappeared.”
In face-to-face interviews, the best questions often get the worst answers. Doxiadis is something of an intellectual slot machine that always gives the questioner his money’s worth. When he speaks he thinks, furrowing his brow and setting his gaze at a fixed point away from his interlocutor. That gives him an angry and determined aspect, but one also has a sense of his explosive intensity and the clawing ambition that led him to submit a mathematical thesis to Columbia when other fifteen-year-olds were content to turn sixteen.
In his transition from mathematics to writing, Doxiadis has discovered “how narrative and mathematical thinking are intimately related” – the subject of his next book.
Dismissing the dichotomy of numeracy and literacy as a Romantic conceit – a reaction to the rational thought of the Enlightenment – he sees mathematical thought as being grossly misunderstood.
“Numbers are a tiny part of mathematics. The essence of mathematical thinking… which is a sort of methodology of getting from A to B, is there in many things, including storytelling,” he says. One mathematical method is described by the ancients as a dog sniffing its way up one path, discovering that the trail is not that way and returning to point A to take a different path.
“That is a very elementary human strategy in many things – spatial, emotional, cognitive, social. And it is really the structure of the most basic proof in ancient mathematics,” says Doxiadis.
As evidence that mathematicians are no less prone to the inspiration and intuition normally ascribed to artists, Doxiadis cites their “almost mystical belief, which is often justified by experience, that if it’s beautiful it must also be true”. Mathematicians “will try and find logical arguments for what is beautiful, and not the other way around”.
In other words, the most rationalistic of creatures are just as seduced by what is intuitively attractive in an idea as poets or writers, and focus on it. Asked to explain beauty in that sense, Doxiadis replies: “You could say that what is very packed truth is beautiful, a nuclear bomb of truth.” It’s not exactly how Keats would put it, but it’s clearly an argument for compression.
A product of the Greek school system and an autodidact in English, Doxiadis is loath to criticise the public education that has found itself at the heart of the political debate for the past two decades.
“It’s easy to say [Greek school] is horrible and, probably, that’s the true answer,” he says, remembering that his own self-esteem was crushed by a maths teacher and revived by a private tutor. “But… if you’re inclined to work and study you can benefit immensely from the Greek system, especially in the sciences. What you are not given is the motive for it, the inspiration. The problem is not taking the horse to water but making him want to drink.”
The making of Logicomix
Apostolos Doxiadis says he struck upon the graphic novel as the best form for explaining the search for the logical foundation of mathematics because images and script engage the brain independently as well as in concert. A reader who lacks the willpower to undertake a narrative can be drawn in by the pictures, much as the spectacle of theatre enriches dialogue – except in the comic book time pressure isn’t an issue. Readers can go at their own speed, or repeat a passage.
He shies away from the idea of a sequel any time soon. Logicomix took Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou, a computer science professor at Berkeley, two years to conceive and block out. It took him another five years to script, and for artists Alekos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna to draw and colour more than 300 pages’ worth of panels.
The comic works under a double cadre. The creators themselves feature as the opening narrators explaining their concept. They then introduce the elderly Bertrand Russell lecturing a university audience on the origins of his quest, which takes him back to his childhood.
The overall effect is somewhat surreal. Doxiadis and his team perambulate through a slightly idealised Monastiraki and Thiseio, Bertrand Russell stands in a packed lecture hall in North America, while the young Russell goes from Richmond to Austria and Cambridge; Russell’s protégé, Ludwig Wittgenstein, is seen in the trenches of World War Two. But the method works. With remarkable ease, the reader is immersed into Russell’s intellectual and private life.
Here, nothing is idealised. Russell’s gradual neglect of his wife, Alice; his unrequited love for the wife of his lifelong companion and co-author of their magnum opus, the Principia Mathematica, Alfred Whitehead; and his periodic depression and fundamental disagreements with Wittgenstein are all drawn in sharp contrast.
The result is what one expects from the most engaging novels: the reader becomes the missing character in the cast and acquires a stake in the outcome.
* Logicomix is available in Greek from Ikaros, 4 Voulis Street. Tel 210 3225 152, www.ekdoseis-ikaros.gr. The English edition is forthcoming in September