Unreasonable Sources: All Singing, All Dancing Principia

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A taste of Principia Mathematica. “The Producers,” it ain’t. I think this is the “finale” where 1+1 turns out to equal 2, but can’t really be sure.

There have been some unlikely sources for musicals: The Book of Mormon springs to mind, also the Leo Frank  trial. Yet, both of these shows garnered Tony Awards, and in the case of Mormon, sold out houses. Stephen King’s “Carrie,” not so much. Although it has an afterlife as a proud member of many “worst musical ever written” lists. And in fairness, although Stephen King’s first novel, turned into Brian DiPalma’s memorable film, wouldn’t seem to immediately inspire song and dance routines, nor would Sweeney Todd, on many “best of” lists, including mine.
Now an enterprising team has taken on a logico-philosophical tome, yes, Principia Mathematica – THE MUSICAL.

For those, who unlike me, didn’t go through a Bertrand Russell phase, some brief background. Establishing the logical foundations of mathematics has–on and off–been a quest of philosophers of a technical bent for many years. Geometry invites this question quite naturally with its emphasis on deduction and proof. (Seeing the 11’o’clock number, yet? Sets, costumes?) Unfortunately, looking at geometry through the lens of rigorous logic turned up troubling inconsistencies that in fact led to entirely new, mutually contradictory, but logically consistent mathematical ways of thinking.

Undaunted by the mixed results on showing the logical foundations of geometry, although they perhaps should have been, the philosophers Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead decided to take on the the task of establishing the logical foundation of the basis of mathematics: arithmetic. Finding a symbolic way to show that everything in it can be derived from logical principles and proved to be valid. In three massive volumes, all completely unreadable with the possible exception of the intro, although even it’s hardly a walk in the park, they laboriously hacked through the proofs only to arrive at paradoxes that could not be wished away. (And don’t seem to matter much as a practical concern.)

And now it’s a show, from an article about it in “The Aperiodical“:

Anyway, the third and final volume of the book was published 100 years ago this year, and in celebration, as the title of this post has completely given away, theatre company The Conway Collective is putting on a musical written by Tyrone Landau and based on the book.

The world premiere of the musical is taking place on 20th February, at Conway Hall in London, and the event description notes that

The evening is scored for singers, dancers, musicians and philosophers.

(There’s your problem right there. I know a lot of philosophers. One is my best friend. They are often good cooks and know wine. Musical comedy types: not so much.)

I know about this mostly useless history because I was a philosophy and math geek in college, and found this logical quest to get everything settled kind of poignant. It really seemed in that era you could know everything, and use logical proof to settle many human questions (not just in math). It didn’t work of course. Russell and Whitehead couldn’t resolve the paradoxes, and a little while later, Gödel, showed that this kind of resolution is impossible anyway. There are things you can know (at least in the mathematical sense) but cannot prove. (He proved this logically, which is a little mind-boggling).

So, all this has you panting in anticipation of the musical I’m sure. (I thought about writing a play…even started it, but didn’t really get anywhere.) But a musical? A symbolic logic chorus line? A tense scene about the validity of inductive methods in math? The “paradox dancers” sequin and feather boa kick line being parallel and intersecting at the same time. Songs like, “I’m gonna wash that set theoretic predicate calculus logical error right out of my proof!” “The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly in the Euclidian Plain.”  (And I’m sure many, many more and far funnier bits of undergrad ridiculousness are possible.) Good luck to them.

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