March 27, 2020

Alice in the Real World

“Down the Rabbit-Hole” is the first chapter in Lewis Carroll’s famous classic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” wherein Alice enters the surreal world via that white rodent’s entrance. Since then the term has grown in use as a metaphor for getting into something either bizarre or time-consuming and attention-intensive (like many internet travels are).

During a race with the Red Queen, the queen tells Alice that in Wonderland, “…it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that! ” Among other fields, this idea has made its way into evolutionary biology with the “Red Queen hypothesis.” If a predator species in a predator-prey relationship, for example, does not evolve to be fast or stealthy enough to catch its prey, it might starve and eventually go extinct, while the prey species must evolve to run faster or otherwise escape the predator or it may go extinct. The result is a continuing evolutionary “race” for both species.

The character in Wonderland commonly referred to as the Mad Hatter was not just a product of the author’s imagination. Exposure to mercury via the potent chemical mercury nitrate, widely used in making felt hats in Carroll’s time, often gave real-life hatmakers serious health problems, including tremors, hallucinations, psychosis and emotional disturbances. As a result, the term “mad as a hatter” was common, and “erethism,” or mercury poisoning which affects the entire central nervous system, is also called “mad hatter disease” or “mad hatter syndrome.”