Link: Alice In Wonderlands Secret Ingredient: Math

It may not be common knowledge that Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, was “in real life” a mathematician. (I like the story of how the queen, so taken was she with the Alice stories, wrote to Carroll expressing interest in any future writing he might do; she was rather nonplussed to receive a textbook on symbolic logic.)

Keith Devlin, NPR’s resident mathematician (wish I had that job…) talks a little about Lewis Carroll the mathematician, and the influence of mathematics on parts of the Alice story.

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2 Responses to Link: Alice In Wonderlands Secret Ingredient: Math

Maybe I’m extremely prejudiced against popular science writing, but in my opinion this article just had no point. The comments on NPR also contain a few disgruntled readers. There is simply nothing in the article to support its claims, ostensibly because the mathematics are just too complicated. That’s what popular science is always like. No real understanding is gained after reading it. If the author made the article complicated but complete, at least some people would learn something.

That being said, it’s been years since I’ve read Alice, and now I have the desire to re-read it to see if I can spot these allusions to, apparently, quaternions.

George, I agree with all your major points. You’re right that the story as actually done is rather pointless. Tea is t is time is pretty flimsy by all accounts. That said, the quaternions were born at about that time. Would he have known about them? Probably. Would he have had strong feelings abou them? Not unlikely, they generated strong feelings for many mathematicians at the time. But I don’t see that manifested in the book.

I’ve been reading some of these comments from “disgruntled” readers, and please, don’t consider me among the gruntled!

I posted the link because I wanted it more widely known that Alice in Wonderland was written by a mathematician. And I stand by the idea that you can get a better appreciation of some parts of the story by knowing that. There’s a good story there, even if this NPR offering wasn’t it.

Now, full disclosure. I’m an NPR addict. Unapologetically so. I like a very large percentage of the things they do. And I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t interested in mathematics and how it is communicated to the public. I’m even okay with Keith Devlin on a good day. I bought his book at the last Joint Meetings, the one in which he claims that this is a golden age of mathematics, and I enjoyed it. Could have included some more challenging content, but all around it was fine; I give it a B-, maybe a B. The things he said as part of the BBC special, the Numbers that Shaped the World were valid and insightful.

But this was weak, and once again I wonder about the NPR-Devlin partnership — no one seems at their best when they are together.. (When I said I really wanted the job of NPR’s resident mathematician, part of the reason is that, after a Keith Devlin segment, I almost always say to myself, “I wish they’d interviewed me, I could have handled that better.”)

Which is a shame, NPR, real opportunity missed. The mathematician behind Alice in Wonderland could have been an engaging and educational piece.

And George? Don’t reread Alice for this reason. Read A Tangled Tale if you like, or better still one of Carroll’s books on Symbolic Logic. Not because he’s an especially good writer of mathematics, but because I think that if you do you’ll be able to see how blurry the lines between Lewis Carroll’s version of instruction in logic and the way the characters in Wonderland talk really are. It’s for that reason most of all, and not based on anything in the NPR piece, that I believe that Carroll’s abstract logical mind influenced the writing of Alice in Wonderland.

Maybe I’m extremely prejudiced against popular science writing, but in my opinion this article just had no point. The comments on NPR also contain a few disgruntled readers. There is simply nothing in the article to support its claims, ostensibly because the mathematics are just too complicated. That’s what popular science is always like. No real understanding is gained after reading it. If the author made the article complicated but complete, at least some people would learn something.

That being said, it’s been years since I’ve read Alice, and now I have the desire to re-read it to see if I can spot these allusions to, apparently, quaternions.

George, I agree with all your major points. You’re right that the story as actually done is rather pointless. Tea is t is time is pretty flimsy by all accounts. That said, the quaternions were born at about that time. Would he have known about them? Probably. Would he have had strong feelings abou them? Not unlikely, they generated strong feelings for many mathematicians at the time. But I don’t see that manifested in the book.

I’ve been reading some of these comments from “disgruntled” readers, and please, don’t consider me among the gruntled!

I posted the link because I wanted it more widely known that Alice in Wonderland was written by a mathematician. And I stand by the idea that you can get a better appreciation of some parts of the story by knowing that. There’s a good story there, even if this NPR offering wasn’t it.

Now, full disclosure. I’m an NPR addict. Unapologetically so. I like a very large percentage of the things they do. And I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t interested in mathematics and how it is communicated to the public. I’m even okay with Keith Devlin on a good day. I bought his book at the last Joint Meetings, the one in which he claims that this is a golden age of mathematics, and I enjoyed it. Could have included some more challenging content, but all around it was fine; I give it a B-, maybe a B. The things he said as part of the BBC special, the Numbers that Shaped the World were valid and insightful.

But this was weak, and once again I wonder about the NPR-Devlin partnership — no one seems at their best when they are together.. (When I said I really wanted the job of NPR’s resident mathematician, part of the reason is that, after a Keith Devlin segment, I almost always say to myself, “I wish they’d interviewed me, I could have handled that better.”)

Which is a shame, NPR, real opportunity missed. The mathematician behind Alice in Wonderland could have been an engaging and educational piece.

And George? Don’t reread Alice for this reason. Read A Tangled Tale if you like, or better still one of Carroll’s books on Symbolic Logic. Not because he’s an especially good writer of mathematics, but because I think that if you do you’ll be able to see how blurry the lines between Lewis Carroll’s version of instruction in logic and the way the characters in Wonderland talk really are. It’s for that reason most of all, and not based on anything in the NPR piece, that I believe that Carroll’s abstract logical mind influenced the writing of Alice in Wonderland.