Wed, 13 Sep 2006
Everyone always says "Russell and Whitehead". Google results for "Russell and Whitehead" outnumber those for "Whitehead and Russell" by two to one, for example. Why? The cover and the title page [of Principia Mathematica] say "Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, F.R.S.". How and when did Whitehead lose out on top billing?
I was going to write that I thought the answer was that when Whitehead died, he left instructions to his family that they destroy his papers; this they did. So Whitehead's work was condemned to a degree of self-imposed obscurity that Russell's was not.
I was planning to end this article there. But now, on further reflection, I think that this theory is oversubtle. Russell was a well-known political and social figure, a candidate for political office, a prolific writer, a celebrity, a famous pacifist. Whitehead was none of these things; he was a professor of philosophy, about as famous as other professors of philosophy.
The obvious answer to my question above would be "Whitehead lost out on top billing on 10 December, 1950, when Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize."
Oh, yeah. That.
I'm reminded of the advertising for the movie Space Jam. The posters announced that it starred Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan, in that order. I reflected for a while on the meaning of this. Was Michael Jordan incensed at being given second billing to a fictitious rabbit? (Probably not, I think; I imagine that Michael Jordan is entirely unthreatened by the appurtenances of any else's fame, and least of all by the fame of a fictitious rabbit.) Why does Bugs Bunny get top billing over Michael Jordan? I eventually decided that while Michael Jordan is a hero, Bugs Bunny is a god, and gods outrank heroes.