This is part of a series of posts inspired by the Royal Society’s One Culture festival of literature and the arts.
Guest post by Annabel Slater, digital volunteer
Apostolos Doxiadis studied mathematics at undergraduate and graduate level, entering Columbia University when he was 15 years old. He is also a writer, playwright, and filmmaker. One of his books, Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture (English version published in 2000), builds a story around a former mathematician and the seemingly unsolvable mathematical problem that has confounded him for years, and Apostolos also co-wrote Logicomix (2009), a creative graphic novel about Bertrand Russell and the search for the foundations of mathematical logic.
But Apostolos does not want to be misunderstood as a genre writer, and while he loved mathematics, he says he was never a professional mathematician. The majority of his plays, books, and films have nothing to do with mathematics in particular. Speaking in conversation with Marcus du Sautoy, he described himself as a storyteller who studied maths. He is not a writer of stories intended to make maths ‘huggable’, but bases his ideas on thoughts and people who catch his interest. Indeed, he believes subjects such as maths or science should not be over-simplified for audiences. After all, many subjects and concepts are difficult, and that difficulty should be respected as part of the learning process.
Nonetheless, his unconventional experience has given him particular insights. Though he originally saw his novel Uncle Petros and Goldback’s Conjecture as a story about hubris, one reviewer of Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture said the book- “…reads like a mathematical proof”. This statement inspired Apostolos to consider the similarities between a narrative and a proof, and he has written and spoken about the relationship between mathematics and narratives extensively since.
Logicomix had first caught my eye as an unusual approach to explaining the history of mathematical logic as explored by the famous philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell. Opening the book, I expected to find an easy, simplified step-by-step guide to Bertrand Russell and a few of his key concepts, with nice pictures to stop myself from getting bored. What I actually found was a story within a story – the book was as much about the authors’ own journey to define and describe a story about the life of Bertrand Russell, as it was about the man himself. At times the historical narrative strayed from reality into carefully considered fictional meetings with other eminent thinkers, and switched between past and present. Logical concepts were presented in simplified, neat forms that encouraged my casual interest to find out more.
Wondering what kind of person was behind this book, I caught up with Apostolos after the event to ask him about graphic novels, mathematics, and storytelling – click here to find out what he said (mp3).
You can also watch a video of Apostolos talking about “the bookseller’s dilemma” earlier in the One Culture festival…