Lewis Carroll, the Original Mathematical Novelist by Robert Black

Posted on: 08/22/2016 Back to all blog posts

Author Robert Black reflects on his inspiration for math in fiction.

Lewis Carroll 1863

Lewis Carroll 1863

Whenever I give a presentation on my Mathematical Nights books, there’s one name that I always mention: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, mathematical lecturer at Oxford University during much of the Victorian era. You may know him better by his pen name: Lewis Carroll. From the time I started developing my ideas for mathematical fiction, I knew I needed to study the works of Lewis Carroll and the way he used math in his stories.

As a college professor, Charles Dodgson began teaching the geometry of Euclid’s Elements, and he wrote many pamphlets to supplement the original text and provide additional exercises. As a mathematician, he explored algebra and analytic geometry in his 1867 Elementary Treatise on Determinants (a work allegedly given to Queen Victoria after she finished Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and demanded to be brought “the next book that Mr. Carroll produces”). He also made several contributions to the study of logic. As a writer, he often blended his mathematical skills with his whimsical style—sometimes in obvious ways and other times in ways that are harder to find.

220px-Alice_par_John_Tenniel_04At one point in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice is trying to make sense of what’s happened to her, and she says, “I’ll try if I know all the things I used to know. Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is—oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at this rate!”

It sounds like nonsense, but underneath it there’s a pattern involving a progression of number bases (and in this progression, she really doesn’t ever get to 20). Arithmetic turns up in the poem “The Hunting of the Snark,” and a Möbius strip appears in Carroll’s last novel, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded. And throughout the Alice books and Dodgson’s other work writing as Lewis Carroll, logical absurdities create much of the humor, as in this exchange between Alice and the White King in Alice Through the Looking Glass:

White King: They’re both gone to town. Just look along the road, and tell me if you can see either of them.

Alice: I see nobody on the road.

White King: I only wish I had such eyes. To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance, too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!

Another Lewis Carroll work inspired the story format I use in my Mathematical Nights books. A Tangled Tale, published for Christmas 1885, collected ten mathematical puzzles that Dodgson had written for a periodical called The Monthly Packet between 1880 and 1884. Each puzzle was presented as a short story in Dodgson’s usual nonsense-heavy comedic style, and readers had the opportunity to work out the problems and send their answers to the magazine. In his next column, Dodgson would explain the answer—and sometimes make fun of the wrong answers that the magazine received—before moving on to the next story.

The Cheshire Bat, by Tenniel

The Cheshire Bat, by Tenniel

In the Mathematical Nights books, my main character Lennie Miller meets a series of monsters, vampires, and other supernatural creatures who give her math problems to solve. The format is similar to A Tangled Tale in that readers are presented with a problem and all of the information needed to solve it. Readers who would like to try finding the answer themselves can stop and work on it before going on. One major departure in my books, though, is that I do not step out from behind the curtain, so to speak, and explain the answer as an omniscient narrator. Instead, I show the characters working through the problem themselves, sometimes even making mistakes or going down blind alleys before reaching the answer. I chose this format because I wanted readers to see the process that goes into solving a problem, not just the solution itself.

The Mathematical Nights books contain a few other homages to Lewis Carroll’s works. The first problem given to Lennie in Night of the Paranormal Patterns is a variation on one of the problems in A Tangled Tale, as is one of the problems in Night of the Eerie Equations. Two ghosts of British Redcoats who visit Lennie are based on two knights who appear in A Tangled Tale. And the spokesman for the monster community is the Cheshire Bat, who of course is a tribute to the Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Cheshire Bat always frowns instead of smiles, but since he always hangs upside down, his frown looks like a smile. I like to think that Dodgson would have enjoyed that bit of geometric inversion.

I have plenty of other mathematical subjects that I’d like to write about someday, as well as stories that don’t fit the format of the Mathematical Nights books. But even when I’m writing in a different style, I won’t forget the roots of my mathematical fiction. It always helps to know where you’ve come from.

Robert Black grew up in Indianapolis, where his parents were both high school math teachers. He attended Park Tudor School in Indianapolis (where his parents taught) from kindergarten through high school. He graduated from Vanderbilt University with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and mathematics. He has been writing for children since the mid-1980s, when he worked on the Nickelodeon TV series You Can’t Do That on Television. He currently works as quality systems manager in California. In addition to his Mathematical Nights books, he has also written a series of biographies of mathematicians called Mathematical Lives.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland  is one of the language-illustrated classic novels in Michael Clay Thompson’s literature trilogies.

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