18 September 2010

Lewis Carroll in Numberland

When I was a child, we had a ratty old VHS tape of Disney's "Donald in Mathmagic Land" taped off the Disney Channel.  It was so much fun.  That programme is why I know how to play billiards even though I've only ever played pool.  I learned about Pythagoras long before the hated geometry class turned up.

I like Alice in Wonderland, too.  Lewis Carroll hid a lot of mathematic and logic games in his writing for children.  I didn't realize it was math at the time (when you're eight, and bored in school, math consists of "timed tests" for arithmetic; I hate "timed tests").

Robin Wilson brings the mathematical side of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson to the fore in Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical, Mathematical, Logical LifeDodgson was interested in math very early on and, if not exactly a prodigy, he applied himself well to his studies and lectured in mathematics at Oxford for many years after his graduation. Dodgson worked out logic problems, the mathematics of parliamentary representation in political theory, a memory device, better methods of teaching and examining in geometry, and tournament eliminations (among other things).

The biographical layout of the book is very interesting, taking it's "Fits" after Carroll's poem The Hunting of the Snark.  His career at school was very interesting to me since the school system of nineteenth century England is so very different from twenty-first century America.  Especially the college process. 

What killed me was the math.  *headdesk*  I still have no patience for word problems.  Wilson is a mathematician and presents many of Dodgson's arithmetic, logic, and geometry puzzles and problems as written - which are nearly all word problems.  Wilson explains some of them, and many have solutions in the Appendix, but after a while my eyes started to glaze over.  I was also astounded at the advanced nature of the mathematics problems Dodgson encountered as a child; Wilson includes a set of sample problems from an arithmetic text used at Dodgson's prep school and I was completely unable to solve any of them even thought I knew what they were asking.  And I have what amounts to a minor in biostatistics so I've taken advanced mathematics.  The chapters on Dodgson's puzzles were much more fun to read.  I didn't try and solve any so I can go back and try my hand at them later (I've found that anything math-related I have to take in small doses or I bail).

Numberland was interesting as a biography but I should have known there would have been lots of "math" in the book - we do keep it in the "Mathematics" section of the store.  I should have read a little slower.  It probably would have helped the *headdesk* feeling.

1 comment:

  1. Math makes my head explode. So, I guess...not a bio for me! But it made for a funny posting.

    It seems like Carroll must have been an interesting person.