Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Lewis Carroll, Happy Birthday, and RIP

January was the month in which Lewis Carroll was both Born (27th) and Died (the 14th)

It seems a fitting time to remember some of my favorite (not all true) stories about him.
Carroll was of course the pseudonym by which he wrote, but in his day to day life he was an instructor of mathematics at Oxford by the name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgeson (Lewis Carroll is an alteration of the Latinization of Charles into Carroll, and the replacement of Lutwidge with Lewis). He was a good (but not great) mathematician, but in the way of the world, he is remembered most for his children's stories... and had he not written them, he would probably be remembered for his photography... And if he had avoided that also... Maybe people would know he was a mathematician, but probably not; how many people on the street have heard of Euler?.

An interesting, but seemingly false, story circulated about a gift of a book on determinants to the Queen of England by Lewis Carroll. Here is the version as it is told on the Mathworld page.
Several accounts state that Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson ) sent Queen Victoria a copy of one of his mathematical works, in one account, An Elementary Treatise on Determinants. Heath (1974) states, "A well-known story tells how Queen Victoria, charmed by Alice in Wonderland, expressed a desire to receive the author's next work, and was presented, in due course, with a loyally inscribed copy of An Elementary Treatise on Determinants," while Gattegno (1974) asserts "Queen Victoria, having enjoyed Alice so much, made known her wish to receive the author's other books, and was sent one of Dodgson's mathematical works." However, in Symbolic Logic (1896), Carroll stated, "I take this opportunity of giving what publicity I can to my contradiction of a silly story, which has been going the round of the papers, about my having presented certain books to Her Majesty the Queen. It is so constantly repeated, and is such absolute fiction, that I think it worth while to state, once for all, that it is utterly false in every particular: nothing even resembling it has occurred" (Mikkelson and Mikkelson).
Ok, but still a neat story...

I love this letter, written by Dodgeson to a young man named Wilton Cox.
"Honoured Sir,
Understanding you to be a distinguished algebraist (that is, distinguished from other algebraists by different face, different height, etc.), I beg to submit to you a difficulty which distresses me much.

If x and y are each equal to 1, it is plain that

2 × (x2 - y2) = 0, and also that 5 × (x - y) = 0.

Hence 2 × (x2 - y2) = 5 × (x - y).

Now divide each side of this equation by (x - y).

Then 2 × (x + y) = 5.

But (x + y) = (1 + 1), i.e. = 2. So that 2 × 2 = 5.

Ever since this painful fact has been forced upon me, I have not slept more than 8 hours a night, and have not been able to eat more than 3 meals a day.

I trust you will pity me and will kindly explain the difficulty to Your obliged, Lewis Carroll."

Another interest of Dodgson's was the analysis of tennis tournaments:

"At a lawn tennis tournament where I chanced to be a spectator, the present method of assigning prizes was brought to my notice by the lamentations of one player who had been beaten early in the contest, and who had the mortification of seeing the second prize carried off by a player whom he knew to be quite inferior to himself." Carroll set out the guidelines for a seeding system well before the good folk at Wimbledon ever thought of it. "Good on ya" as they say over here.

And from a letter he wrote in 1868 with suggestions for essentials of math instruction

Here are links to several other blogs I have written that involve Lewis Carroll in some way..
A Brief History of Logic Diagrams

Searching for Snarks

and Two times Two is Five Enjoy...
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