
Flatland
There is a fun old book that was written in 1874, by Edwin A. Abbott,
called Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. In this book Edwin Abbott
pretends that he is a two dimensional square who lives in a two dimensional
world called Flatland. (See
Flatland cartoon.) As
a square in Flatland, Edwin is writing this book from Flatland prison.
To explain why he is in prison, a little background is in order. Flatland
is a classconscious society made up of lines, triangles, squares, pentagons,
hexagons, and other figures. They all move around on a two dimensional
plain like a huge piece of paper, living out their lives. Women are the
lowest class and are lines. The next class is extremely acute triangles
and as the base of the triangle lengthens the class status rises. Then
there are squares, which Edwin is, and they are the professional class.
As the number of angles increase, the class goes up until it forms a circle.
The circle is the highest class, a priest.
Everyone in Flatland looks like a line to everyone else. The main way
that they tell one another apart is by voice or touch. In order to understand
why everyone looks like a line; imagine a quarter lying on a flat table.
If one looks down from up above (three dimensions) the quarter would look
like a Flatlander priest or circle. Then if one were to move their eye
down so as to view only across the surface of the table, all that one
could see of the quarter would be a line. Keep in mind that Flatlanders
cannot rise up or go below the flat twodimensional surface they live
on.
The story begins one night when Edwin is helping his Grandson, who is
a very smart pentagon, do his math lessons. As they work on the math Edwin
shows his Grandson that by squaring a number one can represent the two
dimensional reality, they live in, with math. This is because any single
number, like 11 inches, represents a straight line that is onedimensional.
Then the square of any number, like 11 inches times 11 inches, represents
two lines and so it is twodimensional. As they worked Edwin then showed
his Grandson that it was possible to cube a number, i.e. 11 inches time
11 inches time 11 inches. The Grandson was fascinated with this and said,
" if a single number represents one dimension, and a squared number
represents our two dimensions, then can a cubed number mean that there
is a third dimension?" At this Edwin scolded his Grandson for talking
nonsense, and told him to go to bed and get such silly ideas out of his
head.
This may sound strange to us because we live in a three dimensional world;
however, if someone were to say to us that raising a number to the forth
power (11 inches, times 11 inches, times 11 inches, times 11 inches) means
there is a forth dimension, we would think it is silly to assume that
meant that there is a forth dimension. The same is true for twodimensional
Flatlanders, for they cannot imagine three dimensions.
Then that night Edwin had a dream in which he came across a strange land
that was only onedimensional, called Lineland. He then tried unsuccessfully
to convince the people of Lineland as to what two dimensions looked like.
After all, if your world has only one dimension there is no way you can
imagine two dimensions. Just as we in a threedimensional land cannot
conceptualize four dimensions.
The next night he suddenly saw a very short line appear in his house and
then grow longer in length. The stranger then spoke to him and told him
that he was from Spaceland, which was a threedimensional world, and that
he was a sphere. Edwin could not conceptualize such a thing as three dimensions
or a sphere, so the sphere spent most of the night trying to convince
Edwin that there was a place called Spaceland that existed in three dimensions.
Finally, in the midst of a fight, the sphere lifted Edwin up out of his
flat world into three dimensions. At first Edwin could not believe what
he saw but then he understood and could conceptualize three dimensions.
Once back on Flatland he tried to convince his countrymen of the existence
of Spaceland but eventually ended up in prison for teaching lies.
The point of the book was to make us aware that we may be doing the same
thing as the Flatlanders. Because we cannot see more than three dimensions
does not mean that more dimensions do not exist. In fact, there is little
doubt today that there are more than three dimensions.
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