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Introduction to Edwin Abbott's Flatland


I reently came across the following passage in my university's alumni magazine. It quotes physician-alumnus Dr Andy Kuzmitz (who found the first intact dinosaur heart a few years ago in South Dakota):

"Picture truth in the middle," Kuzmitz says about his passion for exploration. "Around it are all these various windows: art, music, religion, philosophy. And you can look through each window and see truth from a different side. Some people spend all their life looking through one window. I wanted to get up and look around and get a glance through all the windows.

"Too many people get stuck in their window," Kuzmitz says. "They'll say, 'I've got the truth,' and they do.... But God's a lot bigger than people want to believe. We can't understand it all." (Notre Dame Magazine, Autumn 2001, p 55)

This is not a new idea to us by now, this far into our Ways of Knowing studies, though Dr Kuzmitz does express the idea well. We have already discovered, with Nutting, Plato, and others that there is probably much more to truth and the world than we might normally have guessed, and we've discovered with Bacon, Peirce, the empiricists, and Kant that the world out there may even be quite other than what we normally take it to be. And most recently, one thing we have learned from Frayn's Copenhagen is that reality may be more complex, and perhaps even more seemingly contradictory, than our little minds would like (re: the principle of complementarity, which holds that seemingly contradictory principles can both be true).

What we may now also learn from Edwin Abbott, in his classic little story about Flatland, is that there may be much more to the world, by many orders of magnitude, than we normally conceive of. In this story, written in 1884 and subtitled "A Romance of Many Dimensions," we learn of a land of two dimensions. It is inhabited by two dimensional people who seem unable to conceive of any more than two dimensions, just as we are perhaps slow to conceive of any more than three dimensions (or perhaps four, if we count time). Just what is it, would you say, that we can learn from these little squares and hexagons and straight lines?

An online version of this text can be found here, but it will certainly be easier to read the text from a book than on a screen.

We hope you enjoy reading and discussing it.

Tom & Diane

ps. We strongly recommend that your discussions of this book focus less on Abbott's witty social critiques found in the first two-thirds of the book (entertaining though they are), and focus instead more closely on the experience of multi-dimensionality in the final one-third of the book. That's where you will find the meat of the book and it's primary relevance for our explorations in this course. (To help with this we're not assigning much of the first two-thirds of the book, so that your discussions can stay focussed on the main ideas of multi-dimensionality in the last part of the book.)

DQs located here

SQs located here