Review: "The Wandering Stars" (part 1 of 2)

A friend recently gave me two issues of a comic book, The Wandering Stars, saying, "it's got math in it". It does have some math in it, and it toys with some creative ideas.

I don't know much about comic books, so the purpose of this review is not to compare it to other works in that medium. If you, too, don't know much about comic books, a brief explanation will be helpful: they are series of line drawings printed on cheap paper. You hold them in your hands. The drawings incorporate text which is meant to be interpreted as spoken by the characters. If you read the series of pictures in the proper order (not always such an easy task) a story emerges.

Wandering Stars #1 & #2

When I saw the cover to the first issue, I was so sure the comic would be great. There are seven characters, each associated with one of the "wandering stars". These are the heavenly bodies visible to the naked eye which appear to move against the fixed background of stars; they consist of the five classical planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), the Sun, and the Moon. The seven people are all mathematicians from different eras and places. Some of them led lives that were so fascinating, and relatively unknown, I felt that honesty to their characters would require the book to be as fascinating:

Hypatia was a leader of the Platonic school, carrying the ancient Greek philosophy through the decline of the Roman empire in the early fifth century. During her life Christian institutions became quite powerful, paralleling the Roman ones and resorting to aggressive measures to cleanse the areas they controlled from the influence of other religions. Hypatia's father was a fellow of the Library of Alexandria, at that time the most important center of research and learning in the empire. During her life, a significant portion of the Library would be razed by a mob under orders of the pope of Alexandria - and so her father would in fact be the last fellow of that esteemed institution. Although she claimed both pagans and Christians among her students, the conflict wrought by the new order could not be denied. As Christian and Jewish gangs fought in the streets of Alexandria, some Christian authorities actively sought to edit and censor works - as is known from a letter to Hypatia from one of her students, a reluctant bishop.

It was after one of the altercations between Christians and Jews that Alexandrian pope Cyril ordered the removal of all Jews from the city. This order was denied by the city's secular Roman prefect Orestes. He had been installed at about the same time as Cyril and they must have fought politically for control of their city. Cyril incited a huge mob of Christians to punish Orestes and any people associated with him, including Hypatia. She was riding in a chariot when she was surrounded by them; they pulled her down, tearing her body into pieces which they burned at the city walls. Thus began the Dark Ages.

Hypatia is associated with Jupiter in the comic, due to her leadership.

Évariste Galois was born in the early nineteenth century, during France's everlasting revolution. Despite his aptitude for mathematics, he twice failed entrance at the top Parisian University, the École Polytechnique, due to his ill-temper. The second time was perhaps more excusable, since his father, a mayor, committed suicide after some scandalous poems were forged in his name by a priest. Galois refused to answer questions during his exam, and, it is said, hurled a chalk eraser at the head of one of the examiners. He was admitted to a lesser school, but his stay there did not last long due to his growing political restlessness. During a general riot in which King Charles X fled France, the students were locked in the school for their own safety. Galois, who failed to scale the school walls during the event, published a letter attacking the school director for not letting them participate, and was promptly expelled. Not long afterward, he would stand trial for a toast "to Louis-Phillipe!" raising not just a glass, but a dagger. Interpreting this as a threat on the king's life, many present climbed out through windows to avoid trouble with police.

It was not for this event that Galois would finally be imprisoned, however. He was arrested walking the streets in his outlawed Artillery of the National Guard uniform, armed with knives, pistols, and a rifle. While serving his term, a cholera epidemic broke out and he was transfered to a hospital, where he fell in love with Stephanie-Felice du Motel, the head physician's daughter. She did not return his affection, and when he was released from the hospital he found himself challenged to a duel with one Perscheux d'Herbinville. It is said that the entire night before he spent writing letters to his friends, expounding the intricacies of his theory, and his exhaustion contributed to his loss, and death, in the fight. His mathematical accomplishments, leading to a whole field of mathematics, would not be recognized for a decade after his death.

The comic puts Galois in the place of Mars, the god of war.

Alan Turing was an English father of computer science. In his university papers, he invented the model still used today to describe a universal computer. During World War II, he was essential in the Allies' cryptography efforts. The Germans were using a device called the "Enigma Machine" to encrypt and decrypt messages. They were so sure of its security that they often sent long, detailed plans using the code. Turing was quickly able to develop a machine that could decrypt any message in a day or two - and sometimes sooner, due to the lax way operators often used the device. The ability to read nearly all German naval messages was instrumental to the Allies victory in the Battle of the Atlantic. For his work in the war, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire.

In 1952, a young man named Arnold Murray broke into Turing's home. During the investigation, police discovered there had been a sexual relationship between the two. Turing was convicted under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 - the same clause which had led to Oscar Wilde's imprisonment, and indirectly, death. Turing faired no better. Given an option between prison and female hormone injections to reduce his libido, he took the latter. With his security clearance stripped, and his body undergoing the feminizing effects of estrogen, Turing killed himself by taking a bite of a cyanide-laced apple, apparently acting out a scene from Snow White. (A famous computer company would later use an apple, with rainbow colored stripes and a single bite out of it, as their logo.)

Turing is Mercury, who in Greek mythology is Hermes, the father of Hermaphroditus; he was an attractive man who became intersexed after a scandalous incident involving a nymph in a pool.

The others are not as interesting - but, few are as interesting as those above, whose lives and deaths so captured the spirits of their ages.

Georg Cantor was a German founder of set theory in the late nineteenth century, the theory on which all of mathematics would eventually be based. He's best known, though, for his studies of the infinite. He suffered from chronic depression, perhaps because his biography is so dull. Cantor gets the moon, probably because of the amount of time he spent in sanatoria.

Maria Agnesi was an 18th century Italian who wrote an introduction to calculus when she was younger, and defined a curve known as the "Witch of Agnesi". She grew bored of mathematics later in life, choosing to study theology and join the sisterhood. Agnesi is associated with Venus, being the "pretty one" in the comic.

Brahmagupta was a seventh century Indian mathematician. He was the first person to derive the quadratic formula, but almost nothing is known about his life. He is the Sun in the comic, though I cannot say why.

Al-Khwarizmi is the Persian mathematician blamed for the introduction of algebra in the ninth century. Almost nothing is known of his life. The comic pairs him with Saturn.

The troupe of seven mathematicians live in the "Fortress of Wandering Stars", which reminds me of the "Aftermath" - where mathematicians go when they die in the musical Fermat's Last Tango. Except in this case, rather than making snarky comments about the mathematical achievements of the living, they use superpowers to dispose of bad guys messing with the time-space continuum.

So far, so good. Historical mathematicians fighting evil with math. But could there have been some better choices for some of the characters? Before I go on with the review, I'm interested in who you, my blog readers, would assemble in a crack team of mathematicians to tell stories around. We can use mathematician in a loose sense here - Hypatia was as much a philosopher and scientist, if not more so.

(To be continued…)

13 Responses to “Review: "The Wandering Stars" (part 1 of 2)”

  1. Calvin Calvin Says:

    Woot! Awesome blog, 99.9 kudos! Anyways, I'd put Galois for sure, but also KF Gauss and maybe like, some chinese poets? What about Einstein, and my math teacher from grade 9, Mr. Byrne? Hmm…. Looking forward to part 2, the mini biographies were awesome!

  2. John the Statistician John the Statistician Says:

    Hmmm, the inventor of algebra is given the planet with rings. Clever.

  3. John the Statistician John the Statistician Says:

    I'd take Ada Lovelace as Venus, just because I want another programmer on the team. (Turing was pretty impressive, in that regard. He would give lecture in machine code, and occasionally refer to architectures with a backwards endian than the students were used to). Plus, her and Turing arguing would be awesome material.

  4. John the Statistician John the Statistician Says:

    me: Leibnitz would make a capable Jupiter. His courtside manner was occasionally suggestive of a "gas giant"
    Kevin: Oooh, somebody was telling me the other day that it took Newton, a "physicist", to invent calculus.
    me: Appropriate response
    "No, Liebnitz invented calculus, and Newton abused it for a popular audience"
    "as appropriate for a physicist"
    Kevin: Right.
    Nevermind that we use Leibnitz's notation anyway.
    And he can't be blamed if Newton sat on his manuscript for 20(?) years.
    me: indeed
    hmm, it seems he deserves a spot on the team just to get some more press
    although it's kind of singing to the choir
    Kevin: Yes.

  5. David Saff David Saff Says:

    Turing is of course the best choice of the bunch. Think of the possibilities! As Hofstadter points out, (and confirmed at http://www.csh.rit.edu/~jon/text/papers/turing/), Turing was the original MacGyver:

    Turing continued his biological research but soon became involved in what he called "the desert island game." The game involved the manufacture of as many household substances from scratch using as few of the materials Turing had in his home as possible. This set Alan off on such varied activities as producing a nonpoisonous weedkiller and gold-plating a spoon.

    Not only that, but imagine! "That's no human behind that door! Ask it how it feels when it thinks about being deceived by its Mother!"

    I second Gauss, and find Archimedes a particularly interesting omission, although easily explainable: to add him to the group would either increase the number of Greeks or men.

    Finally, shame on me for passing on the Turing/Apple story before Google-checking it…

  6. Kevin Kevin Says:

    Yes, I could have clarified that the apple logo was a coincidence, instead of leaving it ambiguous.

    I was also thinking of Archimedes. With Archimedes and Hypatia you have bookends for the Roman Empire.

    My roommates and I in university were at one point trying to figure out how quickly one could, with current knowledge, construct a technologically advanced society after traveling back in time several thousand years. We never got around to gold-plating any spoons, however. For shame.

  7. John the Statistician John the Statistician Says:

    This comic would have been very interesting if they had taken cross-century cultural differences seriously. A comic about the people behind mathematics, supposedly the most timeless of disciplines, working through the differences of their traditions, would be simply wonderful. That's hard writing, though.

  8. David Saff David Saff Says:

    One of my most common fantasies (after, you know, that other one) is that I manage to bring Isaac Newton forward to the present day, and just walk around my neighborhood. What would I have to explain, what would he find incomprehensible, what would he think "Oh yes, of course!" This game should work with any reasonably intelligent person of more than a century ago, but for some reason, it's always Newton for me.

  9. John the Statistician John the Statistician Says:

    David: you may or may not enjoy the story starting at http://achewood.com/?date=08202003

  10. John the Statistician John the Statistician Says:

    Ok, where's the next post?

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