Friday, December 18, 2009

Alice's Adventures in Algebra: Wonderland Solved

Alice's Adventures in Algebra: Wonderland Solved - This is a New Scientist article examining the themes and imagery in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland from a mathematical and historical perspective. The article is written by Melanie Bayley.

From the site:

What would Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland be without the Cheshire Cat, the trial, the Duchess's baby or the Mad Hatter's tea party? Look at the original story that the author told Alice Liddell and her two sisters one day during a boat trip near Oxford, though, and you'll find that these famous characters and scenes are missing from the text.

As I embarked on my DPhil investigating Victorian literature, I wanted to know what inspired these later additions. The critical literature focused mainly on Freudian interpretations of the book as a wild descent into the dark world of the subconscious. There was no detailed analysis of the added scenes, but from the mass of literary papers, one stood out: in 1984 Helena Pycior of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee had linked the trial of the Knave of Hearts with a Victorian book on algebra. Given the author's day job, it was somewhat surprising to find few other reviews of his work from a mathematical perspective. Carroll was a pseudonym: his real name was Charles Dodgson, and he was a mathematician at Christ Church College, Oxford.

The 19th century was a turbulent time for mathematics, with many new and controversial concepts, like imaginary numbers, becoming widely accepted in the mathematical community. Putting Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in this context, it becomes clear that Dodgson, a stubbornly conservative mathematician, used some of the missing scenes to satirise these radical new ideas.