Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Review of Lewis Carroll in Numberland by Robin Wilson

Review of Lewis Carroll in Numberland by Robin Wilson
The book tells the story of Charles Dodgson who is better known as Lewis Carroll the author of various fictions such as Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The book is divided into eight fits and describes how Charles Dodgson was not just the writer of fictions but also a professional mathematician contributing to linear algebra, logic, mathematical puzzles, geometry etc. The book is essentially a biography of Charles Dodgson with a few opening quotes of Carroll’s work.
Charles Dodgson was born in 1832 in Cheshire and studied at Oxford graduating with a first class honours in 1854. One of his hints in studying mathematics was:
“Never leave an unsolved difficulty behind. It is bound to haunt you in some proof or solution later on”.
Wilson also describes in detail the great interest that Charles Dodgson took in photography. He claims that Charles become one of the most important photographers of the 19th Century. The book is sprinkled with some of the images that Charles photographed throughout his life.
It is good to see that the author does not shy away from putting some of the mathematics that interested Charles Dodgson. The mathematics in the book ranges from his defence of Euclid’s Elements to his book on Elementary Treatise on Determinants. However his main interest was in mathematical logic in which he wrote Symbolic Logic which was published in 1896. He also wrote various mathematical puzzles.
Over the last 100 years a lot has been written about Dodgson’s interest in children normally suggesting something disturbing but Wilson refutes all these claims. I do wonder how the political correct will accommodate this refutation with the book containing photographs of young children taken by Dodgson.
Wilson describes how not only is Charles Dodgson a mathematician and an author but also a deeply religious man and a keen walker.
There are some real engaging stories about Charles Dodgson such as when he put a case for a Mathematical Institute at the University of Oxford in 1868. However Oxford had to wait another 65 years before a Mathematical Institute was built.
Another fascinating story the author describes about Charles Dodgson is when his Oxford College (Christ Church) was in financial difficulty. Dodgson proposed that his salary be lowered from £300/year to £200/year. In present day circumstances this would be an unthinkable (or even stupid) act!
In 1881 Dodgson, aged nearly 50, resigned his mathematical lectureship so that he could devote more time to writing books.
Charles Dodgson passed away in 1898 aged nearly 66 in Guildford.
The book is really well written with both characters, Charles Dodgson and Lewis Carroll, being described as a mathematician and an author of fiction.
The book can be hard to follow in places if you are not familiar with A level mathematics but it is possible to skip these parts and maintain the flow of the book. It is a hard balance to strike between putting mathematics into a book like this which can lead to decreased sales and having no mathematics which would be a very serious omission. Robin Wilson has struck the right balance between these two conflicting notions.