Week of October 10, 2021

Go Ask Alice


“Down the Rabbit-Hole” is the first chapter in Lewis Carroll’s classic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” wherein Alice enters the surreal world via that bunny’s entrance. Since then, the term has become 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!” Notably, 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.”


There was a real-life Alice for whom the main character was named. Alice Liddell was the daughter of Oxford University’s then vice-chancellor. She was ten years old when she first heard Lewis Caroll tell the story on a boat ride and implored him to write it down.


Just as her “Eat me / Drink Me” experiences caused Alice to change size in both extremes, a particular migraine-related neurological syndrome later dubbed “Alice In Wonderland Syndrome” causes sufferers to experience different perceptions in the size of objects, and how large or small they feel in relation to them. Many have speculated that Lewis Carroll himself suffered from this, which inspired these size-perception themes throughout the book.


Lewis Carroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and he had a stutter, so he named the story’s Dodo bird for him, since he sometimes stuttered his last name as “Do-do-dodgson.”


The book was published as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” but previous working titles had been “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground,” “Alice’s Hour in Elf Land,” “Alice Among the Faires,” and “Alice Among the Goblins.”