The Hypercubical Dance

Inspired by Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, in which a three-dimensional sphere tries to explain its world to a two-dimensional square, Worcester Polytechnic Institute physicist P.K. Aravind has devised a ballet that describes a tesseract, or four-dimensional hypercube, to a three-dimensional audience.

“The spirit of my demonstration is very similar to Abbott’s, only it is pitched at Spacelanders who are encouraged to make the leap from three dimensions to four, just as Abbott’s demonstration was pitched at a Flatlander who was encouraged to make the leap from two dimensions to three.”

He describes the project here.

(P.K. Aravind, “The Hypercubical Dance — A Solution to Abbott’s Problem in Flatland?,” Mathematical Gazette 91:521 [July 2007]: 193-197.)

Chapter One

Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics. Perhaps it will be wise to approach the subject cautiously.

— David Goodstein, States of Matter, 1985

Elementary

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Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is credited with being the first modern detective story — biographer Jeffrey Meyers says it “changed the history of world literature.” The story established the convention of the brilliant investigator who unveils a climactic revelation before explaining the reasoning that led him to it. The lead character, C. Auguste Dupin, served as a prototype for fictional detectives from Sherlock Holmes to Hercule Poirot.

But Poe himself thought the praise was overblown. “These tales of ratiocination owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key,” he wrote. “People think them more ingenious than they are — on account of their method and air of method. In the ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ for instance, where is the ingenuity in unraveling a web which you yourself … have woven for the express purpose of unraveling?” The brilliance of a detective story is transparently contrived, he said: “The reader is made to confound the ingenuity of the suppositious Dupin with that of the writer of the story.”

Transcendence

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I remember, many years ago, when my imagination was warm, and I happened to be in melancholy mood, it distressed me to think of going into a state of being in which Shakespeare’s poetry did not exist. A lady whom I then much admired, a very amiable woman, humored my fancy, and relieved me by saying, ‘The first thing you will meet in the other world will be an elegant copy of Shakespeare’s works presented to you.’ Dr. Johnson smiled benignantly at this, and did not appear to disapprove of the notion.

— James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791

Misc

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  • By age 14, Harry Truman had read every book in the Independence, Missouri, library.
  • In honor of Ray Bradbury, a web page censored by a government returns HTTP error status code 451.
  • Wyoming, Wisconsin, is in Iowa County.
  • Vincent van Gogh and Salvador Dalí were both named after dead brothers who had preceded them.
  • “Virtue is insufficient temptation.” — George Bernard Shaw

Peace and Quiet

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Thomas Carlyle required absolute silence to write, and silence was hard to come by in London’s Chelsea district, where he struggled to compose his biography of Frederick the Great. His wife, Jane, postponed her cleaning until Thomas was away and perpetually tried to quiet neighborhood dogs, roosters, and street vendors. But it wasn’t enough.

In 1853 Carlyle wrote to his sister: “At length, after deep deliberation, I have fairly decided to have a top story put upon the house, one big apartment, twenty feet square, with thin double walls, light from the top, etc., and artfully ventilated, into which no sound can come; and all the cocks in nature may crow round it without my hearing a whisper of them!”

Alas, the skylight wasn’t soundproof, and he was assailed by railway whistles, church bells, and steamer sirens from the Thames. Jane wrote, “The silent room is the noisiest room in the house, and Mr. Carlyle is very much out of sorts.” He finished the biography, finally, but he called it “the Nightmare … the Minotaur … the Unutterable book.”

Dueling Servilities

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An encounter between theologian and mathematician Isaac Barrow and John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester:

Barrow … met Rochester at court, who said to him, ‘doctor, I am yours to my shoe-tie;’ Barrow bowed obsequiously with, ‘my lord, I am yours to the ground;’ Rochester returned this by, ‘doctor, I am yours to the centre;’ Barrow rejoined, ‘my lord, I am yours to the antipodes;’ Rochester, not to be foiled by ‘a musty old piece of divinity,’ as he was accustomed to call him, exclaimed, ‘doctor, I am yours to the lowest pit of hell;’ whereupon Barrow turned from him with, ‘there, my lord, I leave you.’

From William Hone’s Every-Day Book, 1868.

Being There

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“Gravina, an Italian critic, observes, that every man desires to see that of which he has read; but no man desires to read an account of what he has seen: so much does description fall short of reality. Description only excites curiosity: seeing satisfies it.” — Samuel Johnson

Migration

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When Winnie-the-Pooh was proposed for sale in East Germany, censors found its message too neutral, insufficiently progressive, and hence not representative of East German society. Here’s an extract from the print permit files of 1959:

Winnie the Pooh is exclusively about fantasy, happiness and child’s play. Certainly our children are not less imaginative in their play, but it cannot be denied that the fantasy of our children moves in another direction. Our time is not so much about a single child with his toys on his own — and if this does prevail in a child, it is not desired and does not match our didactic ideals. Thus, the value for the education of our children is minimal and it is not worthwhile spending foreign currency on it. Yet, should it be taken on in exchange for publishing one of our valuable children’s books in West Germany, a publication should not be refused.

The book did eventually get a permit and was published in 1960.

(From Gaby Thomson-Wohlgemuth, Translation Under State Control, 2011.)

In a Word

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orra
adj. odd; not matched

anonym
n. an anonymous person

prolocutor
n. one who speaks for another

acataleptic
adj. not knowable for certain

Ostensibly the adventures of Sherlock Holmes were recorded by his friend John Watson. But of the 60 canonical tales, two (“The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone” and “His Last Bow”) are told in the third person. Who wrote these? Sherlock’s brother Mycroft? One of Watson’s wives? Watson himself, strangely? Arthur Conan Doyle?

In The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, William Stuart Baring-Gould writes only, “There has been much controversy as to the authorship of these two adventures.”