You all know the real meaning of Alice in Wonderland, right?
The 19th century was a time of great changes in mathematics, and Charles Dodgson, pen name Lewis Carroll, was opposed to almost all of it. A very traditional mathematician, Dodgson thought of Euclid’s Elements as the pinnacle of mathematical reasoning. Non-Euclidean geometry, symbolic algebra, complex numbers, all of these were viewed by Dodgson as nonsense, perverting students away from the study of Euclidean geometry and arithmetic, subjects that actually described the real world.
Scholars of Dodgson/Carroll’s writing have posited that the craziness of Wonderland was intended to parody the craziness Dodgson saw in mathematics. When Alice encounters the Caterpillar, she grows and shrinks non-uniformly as the Caterpillar advises her to “keep her temper”. “Temper” here refers not to anger, but to ratios between different parts: something preserved in Euclidean geometry but potentially violated by symbolic algebra. Similarly, the frantic rotations around the table by the Mad Hatter and his tea party are thought to represent imaginary numbers and quaternions, concepts used to understand rotation which had to postulate extra dimensions to do so.
Dodgson was on the wrong side of history, and today mathematics deals with even more abstract concepts. What amuses me, though, is how well Dodgson’s parodies match certain criticisms of string theory.
String theorists often study theories with two properties not found in the real world: conformal symmetry and supersymmetry.
In a theory with conformal symmetry, distances aren’t fixed. Different parts of objects can grow and shrink different amounts, and the theory will still predict the same physical behavior. The only restriction is that angles need to be preserved: two lines that meet at a given angle must meet at the same angle after transformation. In other words, keep your temper.
I’ve talked about supersymmetry before. A supersymmetric theory can be “turned” in certain ways, related to exchanging different types of particles. If you “turn” the theory twice in the same “direction”, you get back to where you started, sort of like how if you square the imaginary number i you get back to the real number -1. Supersymmetry sees a group of particles and declares that “it’s time to change places!”
I thought the string theory skeptics among my readers might find the parallels here amusing. With parody, if not always with science, the best work was often done long, long ago.