In case you missed the NPR piece on Tim Burton's incredible ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Here's a synoposis.
Author Lewis Carroll was a math teacher in Oxford, England, and mathematicians say the Alice books are full of algebraic lessons — such as why a raven is like a writing desk.
That the riddle and other scenes in Alice in Wonderland — reflected a growing abstraction in mathematics in the 19th century.
Carroll's real name was Charles Dodgson, and as a conservative mathematician, Devlin says, and he didn't like the changes some were bringing to the discipline of mathematics. "To him, algebra was all about numbers," Devlin says. But in the 19th century, people were developing all kinds of bizarre new algebras, where x times y was not equal to y times x. So why is a raven like a writing desk? Because the new mathematics didn't make sense to Carroll. "Lots of things that every common-sense person would say are different in this new mathematics turned out to be the same,"
So Alice in Wonderland pokes fun at these new theories. Missing Time At The Tea Party satrizies the new views — and some snark, a.k.a. a fictional animal species created by Carroll and in today's Urban Dictionary, a kind of snide remark.
Alice finds the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Dormouse at their tea party, but Devlin says Carroll deliberately left out one character.
"One of the big developments that was going on at that time ... was work by an Irish mathematician called William Hamilton," Devlin explains.
Carroll wasn't a fan of Hamilton's work, a new arithmetic called quaternions. "Quaternions were numbers — not to deal with counting things, but to deal with understanding rotations.
When Hamilton was doing this work, he tried to understand his new arithmetic in physical terms," Devlin says. "He said one of the four terms that was involved in these numbers had to be time. So time was inexplicably, inescapably bound up with these new numbers."
Yet it's the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Dormouse at the tea party — the character Time is absent.
What Hamilton said was if you take this time parameter out of these new numbers, then the numbers would just keep rotating around — they won't go anywhere... like the characters rotating round and round the tea party."
The idea, then when the Hatter and the Hare try to squeeze the Dormouse into the teapot, is they are trying to get away from this complexity — so that life can resume as normal."
Devlin says Carroll's message is that we "get rid of all of this complexity in the first place, and let's just go back to the familiar old geometry that we've had since Euclid for 2,000 years
Evidently mathematicians have always known Carroll was putting numbers into his fiction.
"We knew that Carroll was actually a mathematician," Devlin says. "Last year, in fact, a scholar in Oxford called Melanie Bayley wrote a complete dissertation analyzing Alice In Wonderland, and she identified a number of mathematical allusions in the story."
Without Carroll's secret ingredient, Alice might never have achieved her fame. "The very first version of [the] Alice in Wonderland story - that he wrote for the real Alice - had none of the mathematics," Devlin says. "He added a lot of new material and it's all of that new material where you find the mathematical allusions.
"Almost certainly what he did was said, 'Here's this cute story that I've written for this real Alice. I'm going to take that and I'm going to use it to do this wicked satire of what I think are these crazy, stupid developments in mathematics that are getting us away from the real, solid mathematics that I've loved all my life.' "
Photos courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.Johnny Depp plays the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland. Courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.Johnny Depp plays the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland.