Algebra in Wonderland?

Were the fantastical plots by Lewis Carroll (a.k.a. Charles Dodgson) in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland a playful way of attacking new ideas in mathematics? This piece by Melanie Bayley in the New York Times gave me a sense of amazement and delight. She suggests that Alice’s rapid changes in size and proportion are a satire of mathematician Augustus De Morgan’s purely symbolic system of algebra, while the Mad Hatter’s tea party is stuck in time because the characters are obeying the principles of William Rowan Hamilton’s principles of “pure time.”

If this is true, it puts a wonderful new lens on one of my favorite joyful books. To visualize mathematical concepts and properties through the behavior of characters is such a clever way to make these ideas accessible, and to expose both their appeal and their absurdity. It’s an ingenious way of adding a layer of emotion to rational concepts, infusing a dry academic debate with charm and relevance.

NYT: Algebra in Wonderland

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