adventure noun. an unusual, exciting, and daring experience.
And so, isn’t adventure one of the foremost reasons for living? To marvel at discovering new things and following new paths. For some, the definition above is taken most literally – manifested in travel; but as children, we loved playing hide and seek, wandering through the woods, playing with Lego… We tend to grow out of it because that’s supposedly ‘what adults do’, but should we? As an ever-learning mathematician, my adventure is the mental journey I take – venturing through many obstacles and confusing avenues of proof to solve a difficult problem – as well as the broader step that is to take a risk in life – to follow your passion for enlightenment despite not knowing the map. (See earlier post on Passion.) So, adventure seems fundamental for a productive mathematician, which brings me to an eye-opening event that I recently attended. Organised by the effervescent maths populariser, Marcus du Sautoy, it connected the narrative of literature with proof in mathematics; again, the underlying theme for both is adventure. I urge you to read this extract from Marcus’ talk and view the video of the discussion, easily found online (which also involved the great Sir Roger Penrose, no less).
Like many, my first experience with Alice in Wonderland was as a child via the Disney animation. I was fascinated by this most “unusual, exciting, and daring” adventure. I first read the book only about 6 years ago so it fills me with quite some joy that fate has led me to now live just around the corner to Alice’s shop and Christ Church in Oxford. For me, the main thing that struck me about this book is how Carroll forces us to to be a child and view things afresh; indeed, isn’t the childlike wonder a beautiful thing in itself? To observe things as if you’ve never seen them before in your life enables one to appreciate where they are and to marvel at the minutest of details; perhaps, even, that difficult problem is reduced to one that is elementary as a result! A recently famous example is that of Andre Geim, a supposedly ‘serious’ Manchester scientist, who discovered the “wonder material”, graphene, by playing around with Scotch tape! Geim welcomed novel approach(es). I think it is important to regularly step ‘outside of ourselves’ just to see how things really are, to not become too biased or influenced by the way things seem to be, and, to some extent, to shake off the shackles that training/education can trap us in. After all, there is never only one road in life (otherwise we’d have all followed it and ended up in the same place), and the road itself may have to be created by us. So, like Geim, the researcher is encouraged to “think outside the box”. And what better way to think outside the box than to actually be outside the box? In our case, that is by taking on the guise of a child. Another character.
The genius of Lewis Carroll is thus that Alice takes the reader along with her down a rabbit hole of wonder – child, adult, or in between, there are elements that appeal to all in this book. So, whilst it is labelled as a children’s book, it’s worthy of being a classic children’s book. Indeed, I’m sure you can count hundreds of pieces of work (books, films, games, etc.) that are boxed off as ‘for children’ yet appeal to adults. But let us be proud of that appeal and let us understand the importance of why they appeal to us. So I say yes, we have no choice but to grow up, but we should always retain that childlike wonder.