Posts Tagged ‘4d’

A New Year’s Resolution: to post at least once a month. This is made all the more urgent by having pointed people to this blog in a three-line biog published in the essay collection Utopian Spaces of Modernism: British Literature and Culture, 1885-1945, and then sitting on my hands. Any visitors from that source may be underwhelmed by inactivity.

Please get in touch if you’d like pdfs of that essay (copyright Palgrave Macmillan and the author, who exerts his moral rights, which probably don’t include posting a copy of his essay online, but who hopes the publisher might see this as wondrous advertisement). I can only recommend readers to the book itself. It came out of a conference at Oxford in Autumn of 2010. There were only five people in the room for my paper so it’s a pleasure to be able to share it more broadly in publication. I hesitated at first to submit because I wondered if it wouldn’t be better for journal publication but when the editors mentioned that Iain Sinclair, who had given a bravura closing session talk, would be contributing, I snapped at the possibility of being read by a Sinclair-following audience beyond the typical academic circles. I’m very glad I did: my essay sits between Matthew Beaumont, who gave the opening keynote, and David Trotter; between hard boards and with a colour cover; and nestled among Professors aplenty. Kudos to the editors Benjamin and Rosalind and the publishers at Palgrave Macmillan.

That book arrived in the post a week before xmas; a week after I received from Holland a bundle I’d won in an auction. I’ve had a Google alert set up for a couple of years for all things Hinton and it hit pay-dirt late last year when it threw up a listing for a lot in an auction at Bubb Kuyper including a pamphlet edition of Hinton’s ‘What is the Fourth Dimension?’ This was published in 1884 as the first of his series of Scientific Romances with Swan Sonnenschein. It’s as rare as hen’s teeth. The British Library does not hold a pamphlet edition and I’ve yet to encounter one anywhere else. It is also very fragile and would probably benefit from some maintenance. It’s certainly an item to be filed away.

Also in the lot was this Dutch language book, Nothing ALL: Inzicht in de Vierde Dimensie, which appears not to assign authorship to any individual. Indeed, Nothing ALL may in fact be the authoring identity. My lack of Dutch is hampering any attempts to decipher exactly what is going on here and if there are, by freak chance, any Dutch readers of this blog, your help would be most warmly received. It does, however, contain some excellent original illustrations of 4d ideas, and I particularly enjoy the set below which attempt to depict visions of 4d objects in 3-space.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Figure 1 illustrates the passage of a tesseract through 3-space leading with a tetrahedral apex – the equivalent of a point becoming a triangle for the 3d-2d analogue. I’m unsure what’s happening in Figure 2, but it sure looks cool. And Figure 3 is an always doomed attempt to show the perspective of the rather sad-looking 3-space observer in relation to this passage, indicating a direction for the fourth dimension perpendicular to the other three (already projected down onto the plane). It’s a bit wonky, I’m sure you’ll agree, but winning nonetheless.

Fig. 3

And finally, on the 4d book front, my wife bought me a 1900 edition of Hinton’s A New Era of Thought for Xmas. This was a real treat – I’d been planning to buy a facsimile edition because it’s a core reference text for me: the only place in London with a copy is The British Library and photocopying costs there are prohibitive. There are digital versions but I’m never entirely confident with anyone else’s pagination and/or scanning, so it’s a boon to have this in excellent condition.

This is all a bit dusty tome/archivally concerned but I have a post on spissitude already partly written so I can promise some historical spatial theory soonest. May all your 2012s be para-extensive!


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While on the subject of publishing contexts at the end of 1884, and before edging further into Flatland and dealing with content…

It has become customary to connect Flatland to the work of Charles Howard Hinton, and the connections between Edwin Abbott and the author of Scientific Romances have been explored in some detail by a number of writers (Banchoff, Stewart, Valente). Developing the case made by Banchoff in 1990, that ‘Hinton lies at the centre of a web of intellectual, mathematical and social influences’, Ian Stewart argues that ‘the similarities between Hinton’s 1880 article [‘What is the Fourth Dimension?’] and Flatland are far too great to be coincidence’ and that ‘the circumstantial evidence that they probably did meet – or that, at the very least, Abbott was strongly influenced by Hinton’s ideas – is considerable’.

Extrapolating the publishing history of Hinton’s work clarifies one such connection. Hinton’s ‘What is the Fourth Dimension?’ had, as noted, been first published in 1880, but to a very limited audience; indeed, to an audience so scant that it failed to sustain The University Magazine, the ailing journal in whose last number the essay appeared (originally the monthly Dublin University Magazine, The University Magazine had been renamed in 1878, and reduced frequency of publication from monthly to quarterly from June 1880, before finally closing at the end of 1880. Hinton’s mother-in-law Mary Boole had been a frequent contributor).

By the end of 1880 Charles Howard Hinton was working as assistant science master at Uppingham College (one of the connections made by Banchoff: Abbott’s lifelong friend Howard Candler, to whom Flatland was dedicated, was mathematics master at the same school). He was not a novice to publishing, having edited a collection of his father’s work, Chapters on the Art of Thinking and Other Essays, published by C.K. Paul & co in 1879, but ‘What is the Fourth Dimension?’ was his first published work under his own name.

It was reprinted in slightly expanded form in 1883 in the magazine of Cheltenham Ladies College, where the author had worked as assistant master from 1877 to 1880. Once again, it is safe to assume that the school magazine had a limited audience, although precise figures are not available. Stewart’s speculation that Edwin Abbott’s acquaintance with the headmistress Dorothea Buss in the 1880s was another potential point of contact between Abbott and Hinton seems more tenuous than the Candler link. What is clear from both the titles in which Hinton’s essay first appeared – a magazine hoping to appeal to a core student readership, and the magazine of a school – is that its author considered it a pedagogical piece. An instructional essay for students it is likely to have remained were it not for Abbott’s book.

The timing, format and re-editing of Hinton’s essay for publication by Swan Sonnenschein in November 1884 suggests very powerfully a commercial response to Flatland, whose first edition of 1,000 copies had been sold within a month of publication. What is the Fourth Dimension? (italics will henceforth be used to distinguish between the pamphlet and the collected essay) came hot on the heels of Abbott’s book as a part-issue, a format suggestive of a rapid publishing response: as the entry for ‘Serials and the Nineteenth Century Publishing Industry’ in the Dictionary of Nineteenth-century Journalism notes: ‘The principle motivations underlying the rise of serial publications were speed and economy.’ (Brake, Demoor eds, 2009: 567) There is also considerable evidence in the archives of Swan Sonnenschein that Hinton did not yet have enough completed work for a book.

Should there be any doubt concerning the opportunistic nature of the 1884 re-publication of Hinton’s essay on its third go round the block, its new title and subtitle surely settle them. It has been suggested by Rudy Rucker that the subtitle Ghosts Explained was added by the canny publisher, aware of the Zöllnerian hypothesis and its currency in spiritualist groupings. But surely the title of the series, Scientific Romances, is even more suggestive of commercial expediency? Hinton’s first ‘romance’, after all, was not even fiction, but a pedagogical exposition answering its own question in terms that only began to hint at the visionary hue of the psychological metaphysics that would follow. Stylistically, it owed more to the popular science writing of Tyndall than it did to Stevenson, but the content was evidently particularly amicable towards Flatland and the market was demonstrably keen on dimensional romances in November 1884.

It seems highly likely, then, that the chosen designation of ‘romance’ would have identified Hinton’s work to the readership to whom it was most likely to appeal: recalling Stevenson’s definitional account, a young (?), masculine, domestic (British) readership. The subject matter of geometry would further limit the audience to those educated in mathematics.

Darko Suvin’s obsessive historical materialist categorisations of the readerships of early SF precursor texts are interesting here, not because I would like to categorise Hinton’s work in such a way, but because in identifying a social proximity between the authors of proto-SF, scientific non-fiction and the readers of both, outside of mainstream circuits, he speaks directly to the textual hybridity of Hinton’s work: ‘Indications from the textual system point to one of those groups comprising mostly upper-middle and middle class males with special interest in politics, religion and public affairs in general. This is a circuit very close, perhaps even identical, to that of the bourgeois nonfiction reading – which would explain the intertextual closeness to SF of such nonfiction genres as the social blueprint, the political tract, the predictive essay, even the semi-religious apocalypse.’ (Suvin, 1983: 403)

This also, however, creates an interesting tension. I find myself wanting to argue that savvy publishing nouse helped to make the fourth dimension a subject of discussion in social groupings beyond specialist mathematicians and spiritualists.  If the readerships of texts such as Flatland and What is the Fourth Dimension? are as socially narrow as Suvin suggests, however, do they really introduce the arcania of higher space to a broader audience? I think the answer to that question probably lies, in part, elsewhere: it’s what these texts do with the subject, as well as to whom they tell it, that catalyses interest.

Finally, a word or two on that canny publisher, William Swan Sonnenschein. Sonnenschein built his list in the early years (ca. 1878-1882) around books for children, educational texts or theoretical work concerning education policy. There was also a focus on German language translations, such as Grimm’s Teutonic Myths. Both arose naturally from the publisher’s family background: his father was a German-born mathematics teacher. Although Sonnenschein described himself as a liberal, he was closely connected socially to a number of Fabians and socialists, publishing both the first English translation of Marx’s Capital and George Bernard Shaw’s Unsocial Socialist in 1887. (Stepniak, exiled Russian revolutionary, was apparently often to be encountered taking tea chez Sonnenschein).

The Swan Sonnenschein list also always included philosophy, and the publisher was a member of the first Ethical Society in the late 1880s. Commissioned to write a history of the firm’s precursors by George Allen and Unwin in the 1950s, the historian F. A. Mumby wrote: ‘Throughout his life Swan Sonnenschein was a remarkable blend of other-worldliness and business acumen; a man of wide erudition whose interests were quickly roused by the simplest human problems’. Combining education, mathematics, philosophy and literature, Swan Sonnenschein was a highly appropriate home for the esoteric and hybrid work of Hinton.

So, some further lines of research worth pursuing with regard to dimensional romance: its roots in pedagogy and a progressive, broadly socialist, political subtext. Onwards and upwards. Or, as Flatland has it, Upward, not Northward.

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Some initial thoughts on Flatland. So, to begin at the beginning with the title page…

Many dimensions

Many dimensions

Strange that this has occasioned so little critical comment. Iain Stewart’s excellent annotated edition of the text locates the Shakepearean quotes (Hamlet, Act I Scene v, the appearance of the ghost, and Titus Andronicus, Act III Scene i), both of which are fairly obviously puns and perhaps only tangentially connected to their context. I’m intrigued by the illustration – is it a map? – of a nebulous mass, perhaps fog, perhaps clouds.

It might well be a map. Flatland, ‘a Romance of Many Dimensions’, was published in October 1884. As such it arrived not terribly long into the ‘romantic revival’ of the 1880s, inaugurated, according to most accounts, the previous year, with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Before that, in the launch issue of Longman’s Magazine in November 1882, Stevenson had given a theoretical outline of his fictional practice with ‘A Gossip on Romance’, advocating a robust, masculine, adventuring, fiction delivering a ‘kaleidoscopic dance of images’ and recalling books read in the ‘bright troubled period of boyhood’. Stevenson’s advocacy of romance has subsequently been read in opposition to Henry James’s championing of the interiorized, feminine and despicably foreign (!) realist novel.

This brief sketch is sufficient for now to give an idea of one aspect of the context into which Flatland arrived: while the descriptive term romance had been used in the title of many earlier nineteenth century novels, and even proto-SF novels – Edward Maitland’s An Historical Romance of the Future (1873) being an (the only?) example of the latter – when Abbott subtitled his book a ‘romance’, he connected it to a very current trend in fiction publishing. There was good reason for so doing: Treasure Island had been a bestseller. The inclusion on the title page of Flatland of a map would have underlined the connection to Treasure Island in particular.

Treasure Island

Treasure Island

So is it fog, or is it clouds? The text contains fog – common, apparently, in the temperate regions of Flatland – but the closing illustration repeats the nebulous illustration with more Shakespeare, this time from Prospero’s speech in The Tempest, Act IV, Scene i:

You do look, my son, in a moved sort,

As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

The baseless fabric of vision

The baseless fabric of vision

Thin air, then, and clouds. And I’d suggest that the classical scholar Abbott may also have had in mind an earlier passage of satire, from Aristophanes’ The Birds. In the following exchange the tyrannical Pithetaerus passes judgement on the geometer Meton in his attempt to enter Cloudcuckooland:

(Enter METON, With surveying instruments.)

METON: I have come to you…

PITHETAERUS (interrupting): Yet another pest! What have you come to do? What’s your plan? What’s the purpose of your journey? Why these splendid buskins?

METON: I want to survey the plains of the air for you and to parcel them into lots.

PITHETAERUS: In the name of the gods, who are you?

METON: Who am I? Meton, known throughout Greece and at Colonus.

PITHETAERUS: What are these things?

METON: Tools for measuring the air. In truth, the spaces in the air have precisely the form of a furnace. With this bent ruler I draw a line from top to bottom; from one of its points I describe a circle with the compass. Do you understand?

PITHETAERUS: Not in the least.

METON: With the straight ruler I set to work to inscribe a square within this circle; in its centre will be the market-place, into which all the straight streets will lead, converging to this centre like a star, which, although only orbicular, sends forth its rays in a straight line from all sides.

PITHETAERUS: A regular Thales!

Tools for measuring the air, indeed! This prompts a number of lines of thought. A bone of contention in discussions over higher space concerned its imaginary as opposed to its empirical nature. As an algebraic and then a geometric theory – in other words, as a mathematical construct – higher space remained comfortably ideal. With interventions from physics and Zollner’s catastrophic/catalytic misreading of four-dimensional space, the waters became muddied – or perhaps better to write that the airs became fogged. Was physical space actually four-dimensional?

Higher space existed in the interstices between the ideal and the empirical, as did the emergent sciences of mind, in which perception of space was a primary site of conflict. Abbott’s cloud, then, is thought, imagination, the higher space of mind in which the higher space of geometry existed, an analogue noted by William Spottiswoode in his 1878 address to the BAAS: ‘Or once more, when space already filled with material substances is mentally peopled with immaterial beings, may not the imagination be regarded as having added a new element to the capacity of space, a fourth dimension of which there is no evidence in experimental fact?’

As for Pithetaerus’s remark on Thales, this suggest routing discussions through Michel Serres, whose two essays on the origins of geometry consider the case of Thales and the discovery of mathematical analogy. But I believe that would justify another post entirely and this one already needs more work!

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