Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision

John C. Butcher reviews Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life by Robin Wilson, in American Scientist:

Lewis%20carroll Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll, was an Oxford don, a talented mathematician, a deacon in the Church of England and a pioneer in portrait and studio photography. He is best known as the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, which are, on one level, books for children. Within them, however, are philosophical discussions, sophisticated word plays, parodies, satirical comment and mathematical allusions. In Lewis Carroll in Numberland , Robin Wilson focuses on Dodgson’s personal life and particularly on his mathematical life, asking, “What mathematics did he do? How good a mathematician was he, and how influential was his work?”

In a nod to the playful nature of Dodgson’s writing style, Wilson divides his own text not into chapters but into eight “fits,” after Dodgson’s extended poem The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits . Wilson’s fits follow the chronology of Dodgson’s life as they delve into his mathematical pursuits and other activities. The final two deal with puzzles, problems, paradoxes and logic.

Wilson is insightful, and his approach to his subject is scholarly and serious. The portrait of Dodgson that emerges is intriguing. The book shows him to have been an earnest and pious churchman, a dedicated teacher and popularizer of mathematics, an artistic and creative pioneer in photography, and a diffident and stammer-prone adult. Dodgson took his vows of celibacy very seriously, Wilson emphasizes; his opinion is that Dodgson would never have engaged in inappropriate behavior or done anything “untoward” in his friendships with children, whom he regarded as “the embodiment of purity.”

More here.