Sitting on the shelves in the Library is a very familiar book: Alice in Wonderland written by Reverend Charles Dodgson, writing under the nom de plume of Lewis Carroll. It still amuses children but it was written not just as a children’s story with a world of imaginary characters but in a world of imaginary numbers as well.

In 1849, one of the pre-eminent mathematicians of the time, Gauss, wrote a book called “The Fundamental Theorem of Algebra” which posited that we needed imaginary numbers or complex numbers. He was, in fact, right, and the latter are now widely used in engineering, quantum mechanics, the study of electricity and even in animation. However, at the time not everyone agreed with him, one of whom was the Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson. Alice in Wonderland is his riposte which set out to ridicule “imaginary” numbers.

Thus, Alice’s adventures are set in a world where size is not absolute, nor is time. Impossible things happen and illogical things are possible. The author tells a story which is set in a world where imaginary numbers rule.

Charles Dodgson came from a family of high- church Anglicans and spent much of time at Christ Church College, Oxford both as a scholar and teacher. The 4th Earl of Carnarvon was also a high Anglican and a classical scholar. They met and thus Charles Dodgson came to stay at Highclere for a number of weekends.

An older photo with the Victorian carpets

Today we deal with real and imaginary numbers and mathematical terms have become part of our everyday language. For example, “Google” is apparently from the word googol (the number 1 followed by 100 zeros.). Another word often used is “algorithm” (a set of procedures definite and finite). Sometimes it also seems that we are dealing with imaginary money as well. We sit in front of our computers and televisions and what we read and see is led by captured data and by algorithms which all too often seem to be designed to lead us to spending “imaginary “ money too – a flicker of a payment system that we do not even have to reach into our wallets to access and which sadly for all too many people, bears little or no relationship to what they really own in their bank accounts.

So, we have “imaginary” money needed by evermore people competing to lead “imaginary” perfect lives fostered by increasingly artificial social media platforms. It seems hard to judge where reality ends and becomes a mirage of aspiration, until we are all disappearing down the rabbit hole.