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Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life Hardcover – November 17, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

British mathematician Wilson (Four Colors Suffice) paints a charming picture of Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, in this slender biography. Skipping over the most chronicled aspects of Dodgson's life with only a sharp side note deriding rumors of his pedophilia as bad history and bad psychology, Wilson focuses on Dodgson's mathematical and educational accomplishments: pamphlets and books on Euclid, an efficient way of calculating determinants, astute analysis of election methods, and systems of mnemonics and ciphers. Wilson also includes puzzles (some with unsatisfying solutions); a number of Dodgson's photographs, for which Wilson labels him one of the most important photographers of the nineteenth century; and humorous and satirical letters suggesting political postulates such as, Let it be granted, that a speaker may digress from any one point to any other point. Though Dodgson was apparently not always a brilliant teacher or writer in his field, Wilson chooses some of his best work for the examples, and any fan of Victorian mind-benders or mid-level mathematics will enjoy the Dodo's witty and eager explanations of logical puzzles and games. 100 illus. (Nov.)
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From Booklist

For readers amused by the antics of the Mad Hatter and the riddles of the Cheshire Cat, the story of their creator’s life delivers paradoxes as delightful as those embedded in his immortal fiction. Wilson explores that life in a narrative laced with the fantasy and puzzles that lovers of Through the Looking Glass expect. But rigorous formulas figured prominently in the workaday life of a university professor of mathematics. Wilson’s narrative indeed details Charles Dodgson’s skillful use of his mathematical skills in defending euclidean geometry and in developing a new system of proportional representation for Parliament. However, many readers will find their primary interest in the way the academic mathematics of Charles Dodgson metamorphosed into the literary gems of his alter ego, Lewis Carroll. Readers will find rare magic, for instance, in Carroll’s conversion of Dodgson’s professional analysis of terrestrial rotation into a whimsical Wonderland exchange between Alice and the Duchess on the nature of time. A biography as full of twists as the capering of the Jabberwocky! --Bryce Christensen

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (November 17, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393060276
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393060270
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.9 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #518,914 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Arnold Wentzel on December 15, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Few people know that Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) was an accomplished mathematician and logician, who held a lecturership in Maths at Oxford. Throughout his many children's books (the two Alice in Wonderland books being the best known) one can see the hand of a person obsessed with logic, numbers and wordplay.

This book provides some of Lewis Carroll's life history, but the latter half of the book focuses specifically on his life as a mathematician. He developed some famous mathematical puzzles (as given in the book), a much easier way of calculating the determinants of 3x3, 4x4 and 5x5 matrices (explained in the book), and quite an ingenious way of drawing inferences in propositional logic (a diagrammatic method he called the "Game of Logic" as shown in the book).

If you are not that much into puzzles and logic you might get more benefit from buying a plain biography on Lewis Carroll. However, the maths and puzzles are not crucial to the enjoyment of the book, and you can skip any of them without losing much. Also, the answers to the puzzles are all in the back of the book, and it is fun going through it, even if you don't work them out. If you love the quirky writing style of Lewis Carroll's books and also like working out puzzles, you will love this book and get the most out of it.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on November 20, 2008
Format: Hardcover
It is certainly enough for his reputation that Lewis Carroll wrote the two Alice books, whose whimsy will be part of literature (and not just children's literature) for the ages. Carroll never regretted the fame the books gave him, but he might have regretted that the world did not take him more seriously in his day job, that of mathematician. There is, for those who want to look for it, mathematics in the Alice books, but it is distorted and jocular just as is everything else in the books. Alice fans will be happy to learn more about Carroll's mathematical pursuits, and in _Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life_ (Norton) mathematician Robin Wilson has summarized for non-mathematicians the serious mathematical efforts (often leavened with irrepressible wit) of the Reverend Charles Dodgson - to differentiate him from his pen name. Some of the math is daunting; Wilson invites readers to skip portions of it, but any reader will come away with a better understanding of this curious man's interests and the happy way he was able to handle pure mathematics as well as pure fantasy.

Wilson's book is generally chronological, based on Carroll's life which was a fairly dull and conventional Victorian existence, except for his child friends, most (but not all) of them little girls who loved his jokes and stories. Carroll all his life was adept at making puzzles; as a child he designed mazes both on paper and in the snow. Carroll may not have had passions for adults, but he had a passion for Euclid, which in his time was thought the ideal method for teaching reason and logic. He defended Euclid against modern geometry texts in 1879 in _Euclid and his Modern Rivals_; to lighten it, he wrote it as a play in four acts!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By mrliteral VINE VOICE on April 12, 2009
Format: Hardcover
For most people familiar with Lewis Carroll, it is because he was the writer of that classic story, Alice in Wonderland. What's less known is that even before he made his name in literature, he was a mathematician of some prominence, and that this field would creep into his fictional writing.

Actually, Lewis Carroll was a pseudonym for Charles Dodgson, an Oxford educated mathematician of the mid-1800s. He would also teach at Oxford and start to write his stories there, as well as mathematical works. Always eager to please children (including the inspirational Alice), he would become one of the first people to develop recreational mathematics, a field that focuses on some of the more wonderfully entertaining aspects of numbers (particularly the whole numbers).

Robin Wilson's Lewis Carroll in Wonderland serves as a biography of Dodgson/Carroll, focusing on his work in math. The first half or so is more filled with biographical facts; it is in the second half that we get more of the math, most of which requires no higher learning in the field. We get some of the word play, puzzles, logic problems and riddles that were Carroll's forte. Many are interesting, but admittedly, some of the problems that seem presented as logic problems are anything but, coming off more as tricky riddles and leaving the reader feel a little cheated.

If you have an interest in the life of Lewis Carroll, this would probably be a good book to read; on the other hand, if you enjoy recreational mathematics, this book is merely okay. I tend to think of this book more as a biography, so I'll rate it as a good, four-star read, well-written and with plenty of illustrations.
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