Thursday, 24 November 2011

When a certain sphere paid a visit


On September 27, 2011, when an innocuous neutrino started its short journey from the Large Hadron Collider in CERN on the Franco-Swiss border, the world rested comfortably on the shoulders of a certain Albert Einstein. The Universe tottered on the verge of becoming completely explicable, string theorists were retreating into the shadows whence they had come, and particle physicists did what they always have done: relax and wait for more results to prove them more right.

That neutrino proved them wrong. Even though all it did was beat a ray of light by 60 nanoseconds, it had managed to defy a lifetime’s work in physics by a physicist everyone considered the greatest of all time. By travelling faster than light, it had utterly disproved the monumental theory of relativity. Suddenly, things began to turn around: the Universe was suddenly shrouded in mystery, the space-time continuum was being re-examined, particle physicists began to doubt their education… and the string theorist was suddenly in the limelight.

What does this have to do with a book on Victorian sociology? Almost everything. Rewind back to 1884, when the schoolmaster of the small Philological School in Marylebone, Edwin Abbott Abbott, published a novella called Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. The book was about a fictitious world inhabited by two-dimensional people, rather two-dimensional shapes that represented people: women were straight lines and men were polygons. It was a satire that mocked the Victorian way of life. Women were line-segments and therefore essentially one-dimensional, as was reflected by the limited roles they were allowed to play in the society. Men, on the other hand, had many sides to them, and therefore dominated the two-dimensional world.

When, one day, a nameless sphere decides to pay a visit to the narrator, a humble square, it is unable to convince him of the existence of the third dimension. However, after the square is chosen as an apostle to taken to Spaceland, the three-dimensional world, he is convinced that solids exist. Upon his return, again, he is condemned in Flatland as a madman and nobody is inclined to take him seriously.

The book is a powerful allegory in that it describes with an oft-sardonic mathematical simplicity the plight of those who perpetuate prejudices and yet suffer from the prejudice of others. The plot itself is linear, unassuming and provides the reader with no distractions but only the thrill of a Kafkaesque fantasy. The nameless sphere and his divine visitations, the humble square and his na├»ve suppositions, even the monarch of Pointland and his solipsistic musings – all touch close to the everyman’s experiences.

In fact, were Flatland to be mired in reality at the outset by the author himself, the book would long have lost its charmingly experimental texture, condemned to spend its life like its narrator did. No; in being the only known work of mathematical fiction, the book has managed to survive more than a century of tireless scrutiny by portraying itself as an examination of dimensions and nothing more.

While Abbott himself could not have imagined its scope when he wrote it, the morals of Flatland were soon found to be applicable in a variety of settings, including those of the string theorist. Imagine his plight as he attempted desperately to convince his colleagues of the existence of 10, 18, even 23 dimensions, but failed miserably each time. Imagine, then, his exclamation when a certain sphere paid the particle physicists a visit.

It is not known whether Abbott was writing as a historian or as a misogynist: both roles become evident in the literature as the realm’s women, being lines, have to survive many ignominies, some metaphorical, some plainly derisive, to coexist with the freer men. However, such analyses can today safely be sidelined: Abbott’s views on feminism are hardly considered as such, whereas his prophetic insight into the role of time as a fourth dimension was considered by Einstein himself to be an inspiration. And to think the book that spelled the rise of the particle physicist also has come to spell the rise of the string theorist!


- Mukundh Vasu

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