Saturday, April 9, 2011

Inaugural EOTSDS: Bertie Russell and the Incompleteness Theorem (Part I)

I have inducted a new tradition...the last-day-of-term shaggy dog story (otherwise known as the EOTSDS)! After all, no-one wants to be at school, but we all have to sit in class and try to be reasonably productive. So I've decided that the thing to do is tell a very long, moderately entertaining and somewhat educational shaggy dog story.

This is the first EOTSDS of 2011. I took it (loosely) from a remarkable book called Logicomix, which you should all go out and beg, borrow, steal or even (gasp) buy immediately. You'll have to forgive inaccuracies in my version and kindly take into consideration the conditions underwhich this story was first told. You'll also have to fill in a lot of shaggy dog details which just don't work in text...

Are you all sitting comfortably?

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, there lived a small boy called Bertrand Russell, but everyone called him Bertie.

Now Bertie got off to a very unfortunate start in life, due to both his parents dying. So he had to go live with his grandparents, who were very important people who lived in a stately home. Think gloomy, old, important, and really not very nice to live in, especially as a very small boy.

Poor Bertie was given a large, dark drafty bedroom all on his own in this ominous dwelling, and on his first night he heard this terrible groaning noise from somewhere in the attics. Being very young, and since the night was very dark and there was no one to call, he lay in bed and trembled with terror. Was it a ghost? Was it a demon?

This nightly groaning continued to terrify Bertie for many years. All in all Bertie was growing into a very frightened little chap. His grandmother's approach to child-rearing didn't help. She was extrememly strict and extremely religious. She didn't believe that children should ask questions, and she told Bertie lots of stories about the awful things (such as burning in hell) that would happen to him if he was naughty. So of course Bertie was convinced that the groaning was a devil sent to punish him for his misdeeds...

Well, the years went by, as they do; and Bertie grew up, as one does. And soon enough, his grandmother started to hire a series of tutors for him (in those days the children of the very rich didn't go to school, they had private tutors). He fell in love with his beautiful German teacher of course, but much more important was the science teacher. He didn't exactly learn brilliant scientific method, but even the simple observations that they made together began to make Bertie think. And one of the first things he thought was about ghosts and devils. In fact not to put too fine a point on it, Bertie began to have serious doubts about the "ghost/devil theory" of the nightly groaning.

So, one night Bertie snuck off and followed the sound of groaning. He made a momentous discovery, which was to cure his fear of ghosts forever. However that fear was replaced with a far more serious one... What he discovered that the groaning came from a mad uncle whom his grandmother had been keeping hidden in the attics. True story. In grandmother's defence, attitudes to madness or mental illness in those days were such that hiding a crazy relation may have seemed like a very good idea. Mental illness was seen as hereditary, and no-one would want to marry into a family in which there was a known "madman". And the official mental asylums were so horrible that you would not want to send any family member to one of them, no matter how serious his condition (see the opening scene of the movie Amadeus...)

So Bertie's fear of ghosts was replaced by the very real fear of going crazy; a fear that would stay with him throughout his life. But at first it wasn't just a vague fear. It crippled him.

Do not fear, good readers. All is not lost. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode (my fingers are getting tired of all this typing).

1 comment:

  1. Now I'm interested in Russel's uncle...was he a captive genius perhaps?