Lewis Carroll, Anti-String Theorist?

You all know the real meaning of Alice in Wonderland, right?

No, I’m not talking about drugs, or darker things. I’m talking about math!

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.

Alice, undergoing a conformal transformation.

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.

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3 thoughts on “Lewis Carroll, Anti-String Theorist?

  1. ohwilleke

    “String theorists often study theories with two properties not found in the real world”

    Not exactly a stellar argument to win over converts to the cause.

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    1. Jared

      By “not found” I assume we mean not found unbroken at our scale. Just like how Earth picks out a preferred direction or how the Higgs mechanism breaks electroweak symmetry, we could have a world with broken conformal or supersymmetry. It’s always easier to first work with theories that have a symmetry unbroken before working with those that have it broken. And even besides that, string theory doesn’t need to describe nature to be useful in our understanding of the relationships between quantum field theories and thus useful to us.

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  2. djgraviton

    Interesting post. I’m going to have to read Alice in Wonderland again! String theory as just that, a theory. Useful in improving our understanding of the universe, but hard for me to take too seriously until it makes experimentally verifiable predictions.

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