Multidisciplinary discussion of the mathematical imaginary in L.A. this month

A Mouse's Tale

A multidisciplinary discussion

A science writer, a mathematician, and a professor of English walk into a library… no, it’s not an unpromising joke, it’s a very promising-sounding multidisciplinary event taking place in Los Angeles on February 22.

As part of Visions and Voices: the University of Southern California Arts and Humanities Initiative, three very different intellects will be discussing Wonderland and the Mathematical Imaginary. The trio consists of Australian science writer Margaret Wertheim, who you may have seen crocheting a coral reef during a TED lecture; Francis Bonahon, a professor of mathematics at the USC Dornsife College and a specialist in hyperbolic geometry and quantum topology; and Jim Kincaid, Aerol Arnold Chair in English at the USC Dornsife College and specialist in Victorian literature, culture, criminality, lunacy, and perversion.

The discussion will be held at the historic Edward L. Doheny Jr. Memorial Library and will be followed by an “experimental play/workshop” where, it is promised, “participants can make and play with absurd mathematical objects.” The event will run from 11am – 1pm and admission is free and open to the public.

The organizers are the same folks who run the Wonderland Award, an annual competition that encourages new scholarship and creative work related to Lewis Carroll. The deadline for entries this year is April 2 — we’ll be sure to remind you again closer to the time.

Dodgson "perched in the middle" of the "two chunks" in the history of voting math

Lewis Carroll and the Liddell family made the July 26th 2010 issue of the New Yorker in reference to his work on election mathematics. Anthony Gottlieb, in his article in the book review department called “Win or Lose: No voting system is flawless. But some are less democratic than others“, gives Dodgson praise for considering voting systems that are more fair than, for instance, the U.S.’s current winner-take-all method.

The history of voting math comes mainly in two chunks: the period of the French Revolution, when some members of France’s Academy of Sciences tried to deduce a rational way of conducting elections, and the nineteen-fifties onward, when economists and game theorists set out to show that this was impossible. Perched in the middle is the Reverend Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, the author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass.”


National politics weren’t on Dodgson’s mind, it appears, when he first became interested in the theory of voting, in the early eighteen-seventies. Ostensibly, he was pondering the best way for the governing body of Christ Church, Oxford, where he was a tutor in mathematics, to decide on the design for a controversial belfry, and to pick new members of the college. As to what explained his sudden interest in college politics, some people—notably the late economist and Dodgson scholar Duncan Black—have suggested that Alice Liddell, who inspired the Wonderland tale, in 1862, was at the bottom of it. Alice’s father, the head of Christ Church, had forbidden Dodgson further contact with his daughters, and meddling in college politics may have been Dodgson’s way of getting back at him.

The whole article is pretty interesting, and concludes that one of the fairest methods of voting might be similar to how people regularly rank favorites on internet sites like Yelp (“Approval Voting”).

“Algebra in Wonderland” in Sunday’s New York Times

Illustration by Sophia Martineck on the New York Times Opinion Page, Sunday March 7th, 2010

I’m curious what members of the LCSNA think of this article on the Sunday New York Times Opinion Page, “Algebra in Wonderland” by Melanie Bayley. The author is a “doctoral candidate in English literature at Oxford University.” The article goes thru the various vignettes of AAiW explaining declaratively how each scene stands as a parody of the new mathematics emerging in the 19th century. After a scene-by-scene breakdown of the book (the pig baby is a comment on topology, naturally), she wraps up:

Alice will go on to meet the Queen of Hearts, a “blind and aimless Fury,” who probably represents an irrational number. (Her keenness to execute everyone comes from a ghastly pun on axes — the plural of axis on a graph.)

How do we know for sure that “Alice” was making fun of the new math? The author never explained the symbolism in his story. But Dodgson rarely wrote amusing nonsense for children: his best humor was directed at adults. In addition to the “Alice” stories, he produced two hilarious pamphlets for colleagues, both in the style of mathematical papers, ridiculing life at Oxford.

It’s a good article to alert the newspaper reading public that Carroll was also a mathematician, but I’m nervous about all of this “probably represents” business, as if she finally figured out the true meanings in Carroll’s book. And what’s with statements like “Dodgson rarely wrote amusing nonsense for children”?