Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

Posted on August 22, 2010 in Specials

By Sukrit Aggarwal:

The title is “stolen”  from Edwin A. Abott’s book by the same name. To be truthful, reading that little manuscript has set me thinking and left my mind at unrest. I can hardly be blamed for it though, with the book being what it is, given its theme and style of narration. I must digress a little into the contents of that wonderful little piece of work.

The book is the story of a square, or to be precise the story of a mathematician square. The author follows the daily routine of the square’s life in flatland –2 dimensional world. We are acquainted with women or straight lines, criminals or isosceles triangles, naughty triangles, polygons filled with swagger and circles or priests. The book is not just an exercise in friction but in mathematics as well, you’ll know what I mean if you too are forced to find your way around Flatland. Abott has used the two-dimensional fictional landscape of Flatland to take a dig at the Victorian culture- pointing out the hypocrisy and inequality prevalent in society, the subordination of women and the little emphasis placed on human life. Isaac Asimov is correct when he says —“The best introduction one can find into the manner of perceiving dimensions.”

The closing statement above may augur you to the cause of my mind’s unrest. Dimensions ? The fact that we live in a 3 dimensional world in no way implies that there can be no higher dimensional worlds. What if there is someone out there somewhere looking upon us as we look upon triangles in flat space. The question ultimately boils down to the following — “ What is Reality ?” If I may be allowed to opine, reality is one of those few concepts which are omnipotent and prevalent and yet do not exist. Notice that I have utilized the word concept. For that is all reality is. We must be careful not to attribute a false notion of absolutism to it; in accordance with our prejudices for solidarity and perfection. Reality is what we perceive it to be.

Carl Sagan said rightly when he pointed out — Who Knows How Many Layers are there ? We can never be sure to the number of dimensions that exist since we are trapped in ours. Even though the realm of 4 or higher dimensional worlds is unknown to us, most mathematicians and physicists spend their working life in it. Theories of Physics like String Theory which postulate the existence of 12 or more dimensions of space leave me perplexed. Is there any future to such theories ? Or rather can these be classified into actual science and not fiction ? Science (from the Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”) is, in its broadest sense, is defined as any systematic knowledge that is capable of resulting in a correct prediction or reliable outcome. Can theories like string theory ever come up with testable predictions? For example string theory predicts that Gravity is weak since it is coming to us from another dimension. Are such hypothesis beneficial and useful to science? These questions are not farcical for people tend to dismiss them as such. Philosophy may not be a technologically relevant vocation, but it is crucial in understanding the way we humans think of ourselves as a race, our beliefs, our world view.

Ever since man has walked this earth, there has transpired in him an unceasing , unfulfillable quest to understand the Universe. Through the course of history this view has changed; from occupying the centre of the earth in Aristotle’s Universe, to being a fragment of Copernicus’s Imagination, an insignificant part of Einstein’s Universe- being just as a ball bouncing of a trampoline to…..

I don’t know what shall fill that gap up. Perhaps some arcane prediction from String Theory or perhaps man has finally reached the limit of his ingenuity or perhaps an Albert Einstein quote would suffice —

There are only two infinite things- The Universe and man’s stupidity; and we are not sure about the former.