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Meet the Real Alice: How the Story of Alice in Wonderland Was Born

“What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations!”

On July 4, 1862, a young mathematician by the name of Charles Dodgson, better-known as Lewis Carroll, boarded a boat with a small group, setting out from Oxford to the nearby town of Godstow, where the group was to have tea on the river bank. The party consisted of Carroll, his friend Reverend Robinson Duckworth, and the three little sisters of Carroll’s good friend Harry Liddell — Edith (age 8), Alice (age 10), and Lorina (age 13). Entrusted with entertaining the young ladies, Dodgson fancied a story about a whimsical world full of fantastical characters, and named his protagonist Alice. So taken was Alice Liddell with the story that she asked Dodgson to write it down for her, which he did when he soon sent her a manuscript under the title of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.

Alice Liddell, age 7, photographed by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) in 1860
Alice Liddell (right) with her sisters circa 1859, photographed by Lewis Carroll
Alice Liddell, age 7, photographed by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) in 1860

Historian Martin Gardner writes in The Annotated Alice (public library), originally published in 1960 and revised in a definite edition in 1999:

A long procession of charming little girls (we know today that they were charming from their photographs) skipped through Carroll’s life, but none ever took the place of his first love, Alice Liddell. ‘I have had some scores of child-friends since your time,’ he wrote to her after her marriage, ‘but they have been quite a different thing.’

Liddell dressed up as a beggar-maid, photographed by Lewis Carroll (1858)

The manuscript also made its way to George MacDonald, and idol of Dodgson’s, who had the perfect litmus test for the story’s merit: He read it to his own children, who single-mindedly loved it. Encouraged, Dodgson revised the story for publication, retitling it to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and adding the now-famous scene of the Mad Hatter’s tea party and the character of the Cheshire Cat for a grand total nearly twice as long as the manuscript he’d originally sent to Alice Liddell.

John Tenniel’s original illustrations of Alice

In 1865, John Tenniel illustrated the story and it was published in its earliest version. Gardner recounts this curious anecdote of the collaboration:

Tenniel’s pictures of Alice are not pictures of Alice Liddell, who had dark hair cut short with straight bangs across her forehead. Carroll sent Tenniel a photograph of Mary Hilton Badcock, another child-friend, recommending that he use her for a model, but whether Tenniel accepted that advice is a matter of dispute. That he did not is strongly suggested by these lines from a letter Carroll wrote sometime after both Alice books had been published…

‘Mr. Tenniel is the only artist, who has drawn for me, who has resolutely refused to use a model, and declared he no more need one than I should need a multiplication table to work a mathematical problem! I venture to think that he was mistaken and that for want of a model, he drew several pictures of ‘Alice’ entirely out of proportion — head decidedly too large and feet decidedly too small.’

For more Alice gold, see Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy, Salvador Dalí’s 1969 illustrations for the Carroll classic, a pop-up adaptation of it, and some gorgeous illustrated interpretations by Yayoi Kusama, Leonard Weisgard, and Lisbeth Zwerger.


E.O. Wilson’s Advice to Young Scientists

“What is crucial is not that technical ability, but it is imagination in all of its applications.”

In his recent TEDMED talk, legendary Harvard sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, regarded as one of the greatest scientists alive, offers a taste of his forthcoming book, Letters to a Young Scientist. (A play, of course, on Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.) Wilson touches on a number of points previously explored as essential in science and other creative and intellectual endeavors — the benefits of balancing expertise with broad, cross-disciplinary curiosity, the importance of embracing failure and the unknown, the role of intuition and the imagination, the idea that we’re wired for science.

In time, all of science will come to be a continuum of description, an explanation of networks, of principles and laws. That’s why you need to not just be training in one specialty, but also acquire breadth in other fields, related to and even distant from your own initial choice.

Keep your eyes lifted and your head turning. The search for knowledge is in our genes.


In science and all its applications, what is crucial is not that technical ability, but it is imagination in all of its applications. The ability to form concepts with images of entities and processes pictured by intuition. I found out that advances in science rarely come upstream from an ability to stand at a blackboard and conjure images from unfolding mathematical propositions and equations. They are instead the products of downstream imagination leading to hard work, during which mathematical reasoning may or may not prove to be relevant. Ideas emerge when a part of the real or imagined world is studied for its own sake.

Wilson’s most recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth (public library), came out in April and is absolutely fascinating, even if only for the unusual fact that Wilson changes his mind about a central element of evolutionary theory — a living testament to the idea that “real science is a revision in progress, always.”


The Surrealist Chart of Erotic Hand Signaling

“You think no one understands / Listen to my hands”

In the early 1920s, Surrealism emerged as a new cultural rhetoric and aesthetic rooted in using the element of surprise to open up new frontiers of the imagination, blending the playful with the philosophical. A Book of Surrealist Games (public library), originally published in 1991, is part activity book for grown-ups, part essential art history, featuring word and image games that the surrealists — including Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Pablo Picasso (to a degree), Max Ernst, and André Breton — developed to create their written and graphical art. Among them is this (very not safe for work, but then again so was the entire decade) erotic hand signaling chart, a naughty adaptation of the standard American Sign Language manual alphabet:

First person to adapt this into an animated GIF gets a piece of candy.

UPDATE: Reader Jamal Qutub did the honors:

Complement with legendary Italian graphic designer Bruno Munari’s vintage primer to Neapolitan hand gestures.


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