Marja-Leena Rathje
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Alice and algebra

                   image from wikipedia

As you can imagine, art has been my main interest in my life right from when I could hold a crayon. I took art in high school along with the required variety of academic subjects. In math my marks were in the A's until the end of grade 11 and my teacher, an old maid as we used to say back then, encouraged me to study mathematics in university. I told her I'd decided on studying art but thanked her for her excellent teaching of algebra and geometry that helped me learn so well, not because of an innate ability or gift in me. This was proved in my final grade 12 year when I had a male teacher who spent most of the class time bragging about his upcoming potential political career to a select group of favourite male students. As I struggled to understand trigonometry and what else, I've since forgotten, I became extremely stressed to find my marks dropping to near failure. I did pass but with a low mark, not good for my final average for graduation. Funny how these two teachers, plus a supportive woman art teacher are amongst the few I still remember from my high school years.

All this came to mind this morning as we were finishing breakfast and reading articles to each other from the newspaper as we often do on weekends. Husband, who's good in math and has an interest in its history, read a fascinating article from his iPod Touch that astonished and amused us highly, with its references to a mix of arts, literature, mathematics, history and satire.

With another movie just out based on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Melanie Bayley, a doctoral candidate in English literature at Oxford has written an article for the New York Times called Algebra in Wonderland. Some quotes to start with to inspire you to read the whole thing:

SINCE "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" was published, in 1865, scholars have noted how its characters are based on real people in the life of its author, Charles Dodgson, who wrote under the name Lewis Carroll. Alice is Alice Pleasance Liddell, the daughter of an Oxford dean; the Lory and Eaglet are Alice's sisters Lorina and Edith; Dodgson himself, a stutterer, is the Dodo ("Do-Do-Dodgson").

Yet Dodgson most likely had real models for the strange happenings in Wonderland, too. He was a tutor in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford, and Alice's search for a beautiful garden can be neatly interpreted as a mishmash of satire directed at the advances taking place in Dodgson's field.

In the mid-19th century, mathematics was rapidly blossoming into what it is today: a finely honed language for describing the conceptual relations between things. Dodgson found the radical new math illogical and lacking in intellectual rigor. In "Alice," he attacked some of the new ideas as nonsense -- using a technique familiar from Euclid's proofs, reductio ad absurdum, where the validity of an idea is tested by taking its premises to their logical extreme.

I realize this may not be news to many of my well-read readers but it was to us. This makes me want to read Alice in Wonderland again with new and adult eyes and then see this new movie! Meanwhile husband went searching online for a certain history of mathematics that he'd read and enjoyed years ago.

Marja-Leena | 07/03/2010 | 10 comments
themes: Books, Films, History


Oh! That's delightful news to me, Marja-Leena. Yes indeedy! My first history of math book was Morris Kline's Mathematics in Western Culture (1953). Fascinating stuff! Lord Kelvin's quote has stuck with me: "Do not imagine that mathematics is hard and crabbed and repulsive to common sense. It is merely the etherealization of common sense."
Now I'll have to reread Alice, too.

Imagine going to a school where all the teachers were like your second maths teacher. I emerged from mine (for which my father paid quite substantial fees) virtually untouched by the educational process and my mind only started to be shaped when I became a tea-boy on the local newspaper and fell into conversation with people who shared my enthusiasm for asking questions and using the answers to write articles.

I see RW (sZ) is ahead of me. Lord Kelvin is also famous for another quote: “In science there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting.” However, perhaps more significant is (and I fear I don't have the exact words) : "Unless you can measure something you don't know much about it." The latter is more important than it may at first appear since "measure" can mean "embrace" albeit in a fairly rigorous way.

As to Alice, Dodgson's background explains why it is probably not best thought of as a children's book. Mrs BB, a voracious reader, never liked it as a child. There is cruelty that is all too recognisable for children (eg, when the dormouse is thrust into the teapot) and the concepts about becoming larger and smaller can be a little scary for those who suffer from claustrophobia. The film got poor reviews from The Guardian, a paper generally favourable to Tim Burton. By casting Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter Burton showed commitment to the story yet wrecked it by misunderstanding the significance of the other places set out at the tea party. In the book the reasons are deliberately left vague, in the film they are carried to their logical conclusion as if Burton didn't trust his viewers' intellect. Perhaps he was right.

Very enjoyable, it made me think of the AS Byatt book, 'The Virgin in the Garden', where a very sensitive, asthmatic boy who is a mathematical genius arrives at his understanding of mathematical concepts by envisaging himself walking in a garden, and the maths presents itself in solid, living forms.

I think I'd like to try 'Alice' again. We had a good primary school teacher, one of the kind you remember with fondness, strict but full of individuality and very effective, who read it aloud to us when we were perhaps 8 or 9, and I remember enjoying it, but probably much went over our heads. There are a lot of contemporary references I think, which would largely be lost now.

I'm also glad that by a stroke of synchronicity, BB has supplied the source of the 'everything else is just stamp-collecting' quote. Tom came up with it this morning while we were reviewing a very good tv programme we'd watched about the solar system last night (our equivalent of sharing articles over breakfast), but he couldn't remember who said it!

rouchswalwe, thanks for the book mention, husband is checking it out. There seem to be about a hundred or more on the subject and he's trying to remember which one it was that he'd read. Love the quote too.

BB, I've imagined that kind of school indeed, shudder! I think I'd have been a serious dropout! As a parent I learned even more how good teachers can inspire learning. Love those quotes too.

I too have heard mixed reviews about the movie, that it's more about the 3D and special effects and that it's really for adults. I suppose we'll have to see it to judge for ourselves. I wonder if it will be made available in a DVD version without the 3D? I prefer watching films at home with closed-captioning turned on.

BB and Lucy, I think much of the book went over my head as a child too though I don't remember being frightened. Books do leave so much more to the imagination than films, don't they?

Lucy, glad you enjoyed the article. I've added that book to my very long list, thanks! I love synchronicity and this one of yours is a such good one!

My mother read Alice to me, and I delighted in its absurdities. I never felt the need of explanations, since to a small child things are absurd. It just seemed like childhood to me!
I could never go to see the film, obviously, because doing to would betray my childhood memories.

Hattie, I can understand that. The only Alice that I've seen is Disney's animated version, 1951 I think. I believe that's also the one our children and grandchildren may have seen and it's fairly harmless and fun.

I loved this very Alice-like quote by Calvin Trillin: 'I never did very well in math - I could never seem to persuade the teacher that I hadn't meant my answers literally.' I had a nasty math teacher in the ninth grade but was happily saved the following year by one more sympathetic (and skilled).

Alice was the very first book I read myself and I've loved it ever since. There weren't many books then that were targeted for children at specific ages in those days so the shelves simply had books that were required reading.

Kiinnostava artikkeli.

I think I preferred Alice when I was older. The White Queen's observation, "Jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today, is meanwhile a rule of life, which I still find hardto escape. Likewise, as a means of settling an argument: "When I use a word," said Humpty Dumpty, "it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more not less."

Susan, thanks for sharing your Alice memories!

Anna, kiitos käynnistä.

Joe, that's interesting! You have an impressive memory and understanding of so many literary quotes. I really really must reread Alice.