Keep Your Temper

Excerpt from “Algebra in Wonderland,” by Melanie Bayley, New York Times (March 7, 2010):

Alice has slid down from a world governed by the logic of universal arithmetic to one where her size can vary from nine feet to three inches. She thinks this is the root of her problem: “Being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.” No, it isn’t, replies the Caterpillar, who comes from the mad world of symbolic algebra. He advises Alice to “Keep your temper.”

In Dodgson’s day, intellectuals still understood “temper” to mean the proportions in which qualities were mixed — as in “tempered steel” — so the Caterpillar is telling Alice not to avoid getting angry but to stay in proportion, even if she can’t “keep the same size for 10 minutes together!” Proportion, rather than absolute length, was what mattered in Alice’s above-ground world of Euclidean geometry.

Scene from Jan Švankmajer's Alice.