Wimbledon is upon us. So what links Andy Murray with Lewis Carroll and George W. Bush? The magic of Oxford as World Book Capital (keep your fingers crossed!) could bring them together. Carroll was a significant Oxford mathematician and he noticed that in a normal tennis tournament the prizes don’t always go to the best. If the 2nd-best player meets the best player in an early round, he (or she) is more likely to be knocked out instead of proceeding to the final – which should ideally be between the two best players. Seeding helps to avoid this of course, but then what’s being played out is a essentially a pre-rigged tournament. Carroll devised in the snappily titled ‘Lawn Tennis Tournaments: The True Method of Assigning Prizes with a Proof of the Fallacy of the Present Method’ (1883) a way of scoring and matching players which enabled the best players to win through to the later stages and the final.
Carroll was also interested in voting systems per se, as a method of getting fair results. Getting a fair result is one aspect of freedom of expression, of course, so maybe that’s something we can go for in 2014: how about a debating competition with Alice in Wonderland rules?
But worry not. Many years ago a guy called Kenneth Arrow proved that a truly fair voting system (or tennis scoring system?) is mathematically impossible. Which brings me to George W. The link is of course the infamous hanging chads. In England ‘Chad’ is better known as the bald character, also known as Kilroy, peering over a wall asking ‘Wot, no…?’ That caused a bit of confusion when the hanging chads story first came out. But have you ever noticed how similar Chad is to Carroll’s (Tenniel’s) Humpty Dumpty? Do you think they are by any chance related?
Now there’s glory for you!