Posted by: caitlinmonahan | December 12, 2011

Mathematics in Alice

Before actually reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland I had heard several theories about the inspiration for the story. I had heard that it was actually about drug use, specifically LSD. But as malenfantable pointed out LSD was not invented until several decades after Alice was written and in fact, the association with drug use was only “a manipulation of the text to fit the drug culture”. I had also heard that Carroll was a mathematician, and so the story was all about math and hidden beneath the text were mathematical equations much too complicated for anyone but a mathematician, much less a child, to understand.

After reading the original story, I have learned that it was really not the sinister adult-themed-story-veiled-as-a-children’s-book that I thought it was, but in reality a story that was intended for children and about a real girl named Alice Liddell. However, the rumor that Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) was a mathematician is absolutely true, and the theory that the Alice is an allegory for mathematics is not all that far off. Sprinkled throughout the text are references to math that are quite interesting (and not all that complex with the help of the annotations).

The first mention of math that I found interesting was in chapter 2 when Alice tries to remember her times tables, but says them all wrong and finally states, “I shall never get to twenty at that rate!” The  notes explain that the way she is reciting the times tables, which generally end at twelve, she would end with 4 times 12 is 19, and not make it to 20, which I found quite interesting because I wouldn’t have understood her concern without the mathematical explanation.

This article and radio clip from NPR help to explain Alice and Dodgson’s connection with math. He believed that math was very concrete and about numbers, and was frustrated with the new ideas springing up in the nineteenth century about algebra, and his story reflected his frustration. Maybe his argument was that if we can make up silly ideas about math, then why can’t cats talk and hares worry about time, and other nonsensical things that occur in Wonderland.

The most interesting scene in regards to math is when Alice has tea with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare. The Hare’s broken watch leads them to a discussion about time and, as the article explains, this discussion is about the new math being explored by mathematician William Hamilton in which time was a key factor. He explains that without time in the equation, the numbers will go around and around in a circle, just like the characters in the story going around the table.

I’m sure there are many more allusions to math hidden in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and I hope to learn more about them. 


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