Jabberwocky, AI, and aging

July 4, 2010 by L. Stephen Coles

Seeing Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in IMAX 3-D (which continues as No. 1 in box office sales for the second weekend in a row), I thought that the Jabberwocky poem came from the original Alice in Wonderland, but it didn’t. It came from the sequel, Through the Looking Glass.

Recall that Lewis Carroll was a professor of mathematics at Oxford University before he was more well-known as the author of children’s stories. He deliberately dropped a lot of mathematical puzzles into the story, which seem to have been lost in the movie.

Nevertheless, the problem of inadvertently “leaving one’s door key on a table-top when drinking from the bottle of liquid labeled ‘Drink Me’ instead of leaving it on the floor or simultaneously holding it in your hand, and you can’t reach the key now because you’re too small and have to eat a bite of the ‘Eat Me’ cake to get big again (and overshoot in the process [Sigh!]) to grasp the key to open the small door after you re-drink from the ‘Drink Me’ bottle” is really the classic AI problem (the Monkey and Bananas Problem nested to level-three) in disguise, where an anti-Means/Ends Analysis Heuristic (successive difference reduction or “Hill Climbing”) is required to solve the problem of not hitting a local optimum which would fail to solve it [Gasp!].

But what doesn’t make sense to me is how Alice’s underwear grew or shrank in proportion to her size, while her outer garments didn’t. Does that make any sense, unless it has to do with Victorian propriety (or present-day modesty)? After all, why wouldn’t Alice become simultaneously small and naked if the magic liquid’s/cake’s suggested mechanism-of-action worked from the inside out?

Oh well, here’s the wonderful poem, which delightfully demonstrates the value of syntax over semantics in seeking to explain the world. Else, how would one know that the jabberwock was actually a fire-breathing dragon whose head could be cut off to slay it by means of a sword wielded a young girl?

How is this story even remotely related to aging? Well, trying to solve the problem of aging is similar to falling down a rabbit hole while looking at the smile of a Cheshire Cat.

“JABBERWOCKY” by Lewis Carroll from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1872)

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought –
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
He chortled in his joy.

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Dr. Coles is a Co-Founder and Director of the Los Angeles Gerontology Research Group and Director of the Supercentenarian Research Foundation.