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«What Is the Fourth Dimension? Quoted from Scientific Romances vol. 1 by Charles H. Hinton 1st published 1884 Reset & Correction of Errors by ...»

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What Is the Fourth


Quoted from Scientific Romances vol. 1

by Charles H. Hinton

1st published 1884

Reset & Correction of Errors by

AmunCine/Boston - Cambridge 2015

Limitations of Our Existence

At the present time our actions are largely influenced by our theories. We have abandoned the

simple and instinctive mode of life of the earlier civilizations for one regulated by the

assumptions of our knowledge and supplemented by all the devices of intelligence. In such a

state it is possible to conceive that a danger may arise, not only from a want of knowledge and practical skill, but even from the very presence and possession of them in any one department, if there is a lack of information in other departments. If, for instance, with our present knowledge of physical laws and mechanical skill, we were to build houses without regard to the conditions laid down by physiology, we should probably--to suit an apparent convenience-make them perfectly draught-tight, and the best-constructed mansions would be full of suffocating chambers. The knowledge of the construction of the body and the conditions of its health prevent it from suffering injury by the development of our powers over nature.

In no dissimilar way the mental balance is saved from the dangers attending an attention concentrated on the laws of mechanical science by a just consideration of the constitution of the knowing faculty, and the conditions of knowledge. Whatever pursuit we are engaged in, we are acting consciously or unconsciously upon some theory, some view of things. And when the limits of daily routine are continually narrowed by the ever-increasing complication of our civilization, it becomes doubly important that not one only but every kind of thought should be shared in.

There are two ways of passing beyond the domain of practical certainty, and of looking into the vast range of possibility. One is by asking, "What is knowledge? What constitutes experience?" If we adopt this course we are plunged into a sea of speculation. Were it not that the highest faculties of the mind find therein so ample a range, we should return to the solid ground of facts, with simply a feeling of relief at escaping from so great a confusion and contradictoriness.

The other path which leads us beyond the horizon of actual experience is that of questioning whatever seems arbitrary and irrationally limited in the domain of knowledge. Such a questioning has often been successfully applied in the search for new facts. For a long time four gases were considered incapable of being reduced to the liquid state. It is but lately that a physicist has succeeded in showing that there is no such arbitrary distinction among gases.

Recently again the question has been raised, "Is there not a fourth state of matter?" Solid, liquid, and gaseous states are known. Mr. Crookes attempts to demonstrate the existence of a state differing from all of these. It is the object of these pages to show that, by supposing away certain limitations of the fundamental conditions of existence as we know it, a state of being can be conceived with powers far transcending our own. When this is made clear it will not be out of place to investigate what relations would subsist between our mode of existence and that which will be seen to be a possible one.

In the first place, what is the limitation that we must suppose away?

An observer standing in the corner of a room has three directions naturally marked out for him;

one is upwards along the line of meeting of the two walls; another is forwards where the floor meets one of the walls; a third is sideways where the floor meets the other wall. He can proceed to any part of the floor of the room by moving first the right distance along one wall, and then by turning at right angles and walking parallel to the other wall. He walks in this case first of all in the direction of one of the straight lines that meet in the corner of the floor, afterwards in the direction of the other. By going more or less in one direction or the other, he can reach any point on the floor, and any movement, however circuitous, can be resolved into simple movements in these two directions.

But by moving in these two directions he is unable to raise himself in the room. If he wished to touch a point in the ceiling, he would have to move in the direction of the line in which the two walls meet. There are three directions then, each at right angles to both the other, and entirely independent of one another. By moving in these three directions or combinations of them, it is possible to arrive at any point in a room. And if we suppose the straight lines which meet in the corner of the room to be prolonged indefinitely, it would be possible by moving in the direction of those three lines, to arrive at any point in space. Thus in space there are three independent directions, and only three; every other direction is compounded of these three. The question that comes before us then is this. "Why should there be three and only three directions?" Space, as we know it, is subject to a limitation.

In order to obtain an adequate conception of what this limitation is, it is necessary to first imagine beings existing in a space more limited than that in which we move. Thus we may conceive a being who has been throughout all the range of his experience confined to a single straight line. Such a being would know what it was to move to and fro, but no more. The whole of space would be to him but the extension in both directions of the straight line to an infinite distance. It is evident that two such creatures could never pass one another. We can conceive their coming out of the straight line and entering it again, but they having moved always in one straight line, would have no conception of any other direction of motion by which such a result could be effected. The only shape which could exist in a one-dimensional existence of this kind would be a finite straight line. There would be no difference in the shapes of figures; all that could exist would simply be longer or shorter straight lines.

Again, to go a step higher in the domain of a conceivable existence. Suppose a being confined to a plane superficies, and throughout all the range of its experience never to have moved up or down, but simply to have kept to this one plane. Suppose, that is, some figure, such as a circle or rectangle, to be endowed with the power of perception; such a being if it moves in the plane superficies in which it is drawn, will move in a multitude of directions; but, however varied they may seem to be, these directions will all be compounded of two, at right angles to each other.

By no movement so long as the plane superficies remains perfectly horizontal, will this being move in the direction we call up and down. And it is important to notice that the plane would be different to a creature confined to it, from what it is to us. We think of a plane habitually as having an upper and a lower side, because it is only by the contact of solids that we realize a plane. But a creature which had been confined to a plane during its whole existence would have no idea of there being two sides to the plane he lived in. In a plane there is simply length and breadth. If a creature in it be supposed to know of an up or down he must already have gone out of the plane.

Is it possible, then, that a creature so circumstanced would arrive at the notion of there being an up and down, a direction different from those to which he had been accustomed, and having nothing in common with them? Obviously nothing in the creature's circumstances would tell him of it. It could only be by a process of reasoning on his part that he could arrive at such a conception. If he were to imagine a being confined to a single straight line, he might realize that he himself could move in two directions, while the creature in a straight line could only move in one. Having made this reflection he might ask, "But why is the number of directions limited to two? Why should there not be three?" A creature (if such existed), which moves in a plane would be much more fortunately circumstanced than one which can only move in a straight line. For, in a plane, there is a possibility of an infinite variety of shapes, and the being we have supposed could come into contact with an indefinite number of other beings. He would not be limited, as in the case of the creature in a straight line, to one only on each side of him.

It is obvious that it would be possible to play curious tricks with a being confined to a plane. If, for instance, we suppose such a being to be inside a square, the only way out that he could conceive would be through one of the sides of the square. If the sides were impenetrable, he would be a fast prisoner, and would have no way out.

What his case would be we may understand, if we reflect what a similar case would be in our own existence. The creature is shut in in all the directions he knows of. If a man is shut in in all the directions he knows of, he must be surrounded by four walls, a roof and a floor. A twodimensional being inside a square would be exactly in the same predicament that a man would be, if he were in a room with no opening on any side. Now it would be possible to us to take up such a being from the inside of the square, and to set him down outside it. A being to whom this had happened would find himself outside the place he had been confined in, and he would not have passed through any of the boundaries by which he was shut in. The astonishment of such a being can only be imagined by comparing it to that which a man would feel, if he were suddenly to find himself outside a room in which he had been, without having passed through the window, doors, chimney or any opening in the walls, ceiling or floor.

Another curious thing that could be effected with a two-dimensional being, is the following.

Conceive two beings at a great distance from one another on a plane surface. If the plane surface is bent so that they are brought close to one another, they would have no conception of their proximity, because to each the only possible movements would seem to be movements in the surface. The two beings might be conceived as so placed, by a proper bending of the plane, that they should be absolutely in juxtaposition, and yet to all the reasoning faculties of either of them a great distance could be proved to intervene. The bending might be carried so far as to make one being suddenly appear in the plane by the side of the other. If these beings were ignorant of the existence of a third dimension, this result would be as marvellous to them, as it would be for a human being who was at a great distance--it might be at the other side of the world--to suddenly appear and really be by our side, and during the whole time he not to have left the place in which he was.

Constructing a Four-Square The foregoing examples make it clear that beings can be conceived as living in a more limited space than ours. Is there a similar limitation in the space we know?

At the very threshold of arithmetic an indication of such a limitation meets us.

If there is a straight line before us two inches long, its length is expressed by the number 2.

Suppose a square to be described on the line, the number of square inches in this figure is expressed by the number 4, i.e., 2 x 2. This 2 x 2 is generally written 22, and named "2 squared."

Now, of course, the arithmetical process of multiplication is in no sense identical with that process by which a square is generated from the motion of a straight line, or a cube from the motion of a square. But it has been observed that the units resulting in each case, though different in kind, are the same in number.

If we touch two things twice over, the act of touching has been performed four times.

Arithmetically, 2 x 2 = 4. If a square is generated by the motion of a line two inches in length, this square contains four square inches.

So it has come to pass that the second and third powers of numbers are called "square" and "cube."

We have now a straight line two inches long. On this a square has been constructed containing four square inches. If on the same line a cube be constructed, the number of cubic inches in the figure so made is 8, i.e., 2 x 2 x 2 or 23. Here, corresponding to the numbers 2, 22, 23, we have a series of figures. Each figure contains more units than the last, and in each the unit is of a different kind. In the first figure a straight line is the unit, viz., one linear inch; it is said to be of one dimension. In the second a square is the unit, viz., one square inch. The square is a figure of two dimensions. In the third case a cube is the unit, and the cube is of three dimensions. The straight line is said to be of one dimension because it can be measured only in one way. Its length can be taken, but it has no breadth or thickness. The square is said to be of two dimensions because it has both length and breadth. The cube is said to have three dimensions, because it can be measured in three ways.

The question naturally occurs, looking at these numbers 2, 22, 23, by what figure shall we represent 24, or 2 x 2 x 2 x 2. We know that in the figure there must be sixteen units, or twice as many units as in the cube. But the unit also itself must be different. And it must not differ from a cube simply in shape. It must differ from a cube as a cube differs from a square. No number of squares will make up a cube, because each square has no thickness. In the same way, no number of cubes must be able to make up this new unit. And here, instead of trying to find something already known, to which the idea of a figure corresponding to the fourth power can be affixed, let us simply reason out what the properties of such a figure must be. In this attempt we have to rely, not on a process of touching or vision, such as informs us of the properties of bodies in the space we know, but on a process of thought. Each fact concerning this unknown figure has to be reasoned out; and it is only after a number of steps have been gone through, that any consistent familiarity with its properties is obtained. Of all applications of the reason, this exploration is perhaps the one which requires, for the simplicity of the data involved, the greatest exercise of the


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