Algebra in Wonderland?

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

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

March 10th, 2010


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    Discussion (3 Comments)

  1. Scott Underwood on March 10, 2010

    New Scientist has a longer, more in-depth article on this.

  2. Ingrid on March 10, 2010

    Fantastic! Thanks for posting.

  3. Lena on June 15, 2021

    I’m so glad I stumbled upon your blog and thank you for sharing this article.
    Alice in Wonderland is also one if my favorite books. It motivated me to learn English (since a lot got lost in the translation I first read), it inspired me to learn about the history of chess and even helped me ace an biology exam for A-levels!
    The ‘Red-Queens hypothesis’ is a term used in evolutionary biology to describe pressure to evolve, adapt, and proliferate in order to survive.
    After a statement the Queen made to Alice: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

    That one question in the exam brought my so much joy, it felt unreal.

    All the best wishes,


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