Sunday, March 7, 2010

"Algebra in Wonderland" -- recommended with reservations

In today's New York Times, Melanie Bayley, a doctoral candidate in English literature at Oxford, argues that Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland can be interpreted as a satire of mathematics in the mid-Nineteenth Century, particularly the work of Hamilton and De Morgan.

The essay has its share of flaws: none of the analogies are slam-dunk convincing (the claim that the Queen of Hearts represents an irrational number is especially weak); the omission of pertinent works like "A Tangled Tale" and "What the Tortoise Said to Achilles" is a bit strange; and the conclusion that without math, Alice might have been more like Sylvie and Bruno would be easier to take seriously if the latter book hadn't contained significant amounts of mathematics* and intellectual satire.

Those problems aside, it's an interesting piece, a great starting point for discussing mathematics and literature and it will give you an excuse to dig out your Martin Gardner books. Besides, how often do you get to see the word 'quaternion' on the op-ed page?

* including Carroll's ingenious gravity powered train.

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