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maths in alice
December 16, 2009 11:08 AM   Subscribe

Alice's adventures in algebra: Wonderland solved "Outgunned in the specialist press, Dodgson took his mathematics to his fiction. Using a technique familiar from Euclid's proofs, reductio ad absurdum, he picked apart the "semi-logic" of the new abstract mathematics, mocking its weakness by taking these premises to their logical conclusions, with mad results. The outcome is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."
posted by dhruva (30 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Huh. I always thought it was his infatuation with prepuscent girls.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 11:10 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Those and the prepubescent ones.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 11:10 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


While some have argued that this scene, with its hookah and magic mushroom, is about drugs, I believe it's actually about what Dodgson saw as the absurdity of symbolic algebra

I think I prefer the earlier explanation.
posted by verstegan at 11:21 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


And the Wizard of Oz is actually about returning to the Gold Standard.
posted by cimbrog at 11:32 AM on December 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


The link between the Caterpillar scene and symbolic algebra is based on the following pieces of evidence:

1) "hookah" and "algebra" are both words of Arabic origin
2) both the scene and algebra contain things that both grow and shrink

Tenuous at best.
posted by DU at 11:39 AM on December 16, 2009 [6 favorites]


"And the Wizard of Oz is actually about returning to the Gold Standard."

Huh, Shannon Doherty told me that, but I thought she was just being a bitch.
posted by Naberius at 11:44 AM on December 16, 2009


Needs more traveling salesmen and gameshows involving tigers.
posted by Artw at 11:47 AM on December 16, 2009


I've read a lot of Carroll scholarship. It's a popular pastime to try to find hidden meanings in the Alice books. Most of these purported hidden meanings are based on tenuous evidence, and come off as just generally goofy. Of course you can find two or three lines in a nonsense book that appear to be about something else. I suspect if I looked hard enough I could "prove" about as convincingly as this article does that Through the Looking-Glass was secretly about the 2008 presidential election. No exception here!

In general, if there's a credible and intelligent hidden meaning to be found in an extremely popular piece of literature written a century and a half ago, we can probably assume it's already been found. Doesn't seem to stop people trying, though.
posted by crinklebat at 11:48 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Through the Looking-Glass was secretly about the 2008 presidential election.

You have that backwards.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:54 AM on December 16, 2009 [5 favorites]


"The best book on programming for the layman is "Alice in Wonderland"; but that's because it's the best book on anything for the layman." - Alan Perlis, Epigrams on Programming
posted by egypturnash at 11:55 AM on December 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


Another fun interpretation to ponder is Oliver Sacks' take on migraines and some of their common symptoms, among them a sense that one's body is distorted in size and proportion. Charles Dodgson suffered from migraines and Sacks postulates that some of the strange things that Alice saw and experienced were inspired by Dodgson's migraines. I haven't read his book Migraine but I went to one of Sacks' lectures in which he discussed the possible connections between migraines, art, and folklore. Very interesting stuff. Doesn't preclude the possibility of mathematical satire, of course - inspiration can come from multiple sources.
posted by Quietgal at 12:34 PM on December 16, 2009


Huh, so many negative comments on what I found to be a well-argued case. The writer does not just speculate on his interpretation of Alice but gives a context and independent evidence from Dodgson's academic life. Reasonable enough. A lot of Victorian novelists used the scientific revolutions of that era as inspiration for their stories. Anyway, I like the books and played the March Hare in a school play when I was 10 so thanks for this.
posted by binturong at 12:59 PM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh you and your reading the article...
posted by Artw at 1:04 PM on December 16, 2009


Lewis Carroll, huh? I believe you meant to say JACK THE RIPPER.
posted by Skot at 1:15 PM on December 16, 2009


I'm not incredulous. This is not like reading Nostradamus for election returns at all.

I am, however, disappointed. That all of those charming imaginings really represent the silly complaints of a crotchety mathematical conservative?
posted by grobstein at 1:29 PM on December 16, 2009


In general, if there's a credible and intelligent hidden meaning to be found in an extremely popular piece of literature written a century and a half ago, we can probably assume it's already been found. Doesn't seem to stop people trying, though.--posted by crinklebat

Amen.
posted by No Robots at 1:33 PM on December 16, 2009


There's a book about this: Lewis Carroll in Numberland.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:53 PM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Jeff Noon's Automatic Alice might touch on this as well, though my memory of it is hazy and IIRC this was the point at which I began to suspect him of disapearing up his own fundament.
posted by Artw at 2:58 PM on December 16, 2009


I wrote a paper for high school English once arguing that Jabberwocky was actually about "shun[ning] the frumious Bandersnatch" and learning to masturbate ("one-two! one-two! and through and through") instead.

This makes about as much sense.
posted by besonders at 3:18 PM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


In general, if there's a credible and intelligent hidden meaning to be found in an extremely popular piece of literature written a century and a half ago, we can probably assume it's already been found.

Oh, sure. If you can't know everything there is to know in 150 years what good are you?
posted by binturong at 3:33 PM on December 16, 2009


Alice in Wonderland is a mental trap devised by the Reptoids. There are no secret meanings within it, the secret message is its emptiness, the very absence of any meaning. Just like the hollow emptiness of their dark reptilian souls. Since their creation, the passages from those books have wasted countless hours of mental exertion that could have been used toward the development of mankind's intellectual capacity. Knowing our potential as a species, as a threat, the inter-dimensional Reptoids devised this and many other works to keep minds of all qualities distracted so that our phosphorous gas may be harvested from our planet and keep us trapped in square dimensional space unable to translate to higher harmonics of conscientiousness!!!! To believe otherwise, to study these works, to deconstruct the hidden meanings, is to destroy ourselves!
posted by TwelveTwo at 4:11 PM on December 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


So it's like a basilisk image?
posted by Artw at 4:13 PM on December 16, 2009


To summarize, then:
1. Wonderland has 4-corner simultaneous 4-day tea party.
2. Algebra is EDUCATED EVIL.
posted by No-sword at 4:23 PM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Jack the Ripper Wikipedia link is comedy gold.
posted by DU at 5:16 PM on December 16, 2009


DU, I read that entire goddamned Jack the Ripper book back in high school. Talk about your off-the-wall, completely bazonkers theories.
posted by crinklebat at 5:29 PM on December 16, 2009


I've always loved the puzzles in the Alice books, many well explained in The Annotated Alice, but this is new material. It seems extremely likely, too. Dodgson was once asked for all of his books by the Queen: he sent her a chest of his many volumes of works on mathematics.
posted by bearwife at 5:52 PM on December 16, 2009


He wrote two uproariously funny pamphlets, fashioned in the style of mathematical proofs, which ridiculed changes at the University of Oxford.
I recommend The New Method of Evaluation as Applied to Π. What you need to know to understand this pamphlet is that Benjamin Jowett, whom Carroll refers to in the pamphlet as "J", was one of the first scholars who dared to interpret the Bible as a cultural artifact of its time rather than eternal and sacred writ. His most influential essay was published in a book called "Essays and Reviews" which sold more copies at the time than its scientific father, Darwin's Origin of the Species.

Needless to say not many people liked Jowett and his salary at Christ Church was cut to £40 a year, which, uh, wasn't that great. A team called Elton and Freeman (hint: E A F) researched into the matter and discovered that his contract showed his real salary ought to be £500. Now, that being said, go ahead and read the pamphlet. Maybe you'll be more open to the suggestion that Carroll caricatured professors in Alice afterwards.
posted by shii at 6:01 PM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was talking with some friends just the other day about this weird, wrong belief some people seem to have about where fiction comes from. The imagined process seems to go something like this:Stories may have multiple levels of meaning, and they may even make philosophical points, but they're not just arguments in disguise.

Likewise Alice. I don't doubt for a moment that a lot of what Carroll does there is playing with mathematical ideas, making points about how to think about things, and tweaking other mathematicians for beliefs he finds silly. But to say that therefore algebra is somehow What The Story Is About, and that to understand this is to understand the story, is to fundamentally misunderstand how stories work.
posted by moss at 7:52 PM on December 16, 2009 [6 favorites]


This author lost me when she said his other works were dull. I mean, come on - "The Hunting of the Snark" dull and moralistic? What's the moral? That snarks can be boojums (or Boots, either way)?
posted by palindromic at 8:54 PM on December 16, 2009


So Lewis Carroll is actually Thomas Pynchon?
posted by Aquaman at 8:46 AM on December 17, 2009


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