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Sunday, 7 October 2012

Inventing the Fourth Dimension

Ever since the latter part of the 19th century, the fourth dimension has been invoked in esoteric literature as an explanation for otherwise inexplicable phenomena such as ghosts and spirits (the picture on the left is taken from a book published in 1928 called Theosophy and the Fourth Dimension, by Alexander Horne). During the same period, mainstream scientists and mathematicians have embodied the fourth dimension (and other higher spatial dimensions) in various theories of cosmology and fundamental physics. As a general rule (despite what New Agers would like you to believe) there is very little common ground between the esoteric and scientific theories. But I’ve just discovered that the two “traditions” can arguably be traced back to a common origin in the 1870s.

There is a fascinating article in the latest issue of Astronomy and Geophysics (the monthly magazine of the Royal Astronomical Society) about a little-known 19th century astrophysicist named Karl Zöllner. If you look him up on Wikipedia you could be forgiven for thinking he was just a minor player on the fringes of science, who was only interested in things like optical illusions and spiritualism. But in fact he was a prolific mainstream scientist, who did innovative work in the fields of astrophotometry, instrument design, electrodynamics, solar physics and the theory of comets. He was the first person to consider that the three-dimensional space that we live in is not “flat” Euclidean space, but is curved on a cosmological scale. The idea of non-Euclidean geometry had been around as an abstract concept since earlier in the 19th century, but Zöllner—in 1872—was the first person to suggest the Universe itself was non-Euclidean. He was led to this conclusion as the simplest explanation of a well-known but puzzling astronomical observation known as Olbers’ Paradox.

What does “curved space” mean? The easiest way to visualize it is by analogy with a curved two-dimensional surface, such as that of a sphere. A normal two-dimensional surface is a flat sheet, which is Euclidean because the angles of any triangle drawn on it always add up to 180°. On the other hand, the apparently two-dimensional surface of a sphere is non-Euclidean because the angles of a triangle add up to more than 180°. This is because the sphere exists in a higher dimensional space—three dimensions—which is Euclidean. By analogy, Zöllner imagined that the universe was a four-dimensional Euclidean hypersphere that gives the illusion of being a curved, non-Euclidean three dimensional space because we cannot directly perceive the fourth spatial dimension that he believed to exist.

In 1877, a few years after Zöllner proposed his theory of curved space, he met William Crookes—a British chemist who had recently become interested in the scientific study of spiritualism. Zöllner quickly became convinced of the reality of “spirits”, but rather than believing them to be the souls of dead people he theorized that they were visitors from the fourth spatial dimension. He expounded this theory in an 1878 book entitled Transcendental Physics, which aimed to encompass both the physical and spiritual worlds with a single theory of four-dimensional space.

Unfortunately for Zöllner, the psychic medium he chose to carry out his spiritualist experiments with was a man named Henry Slade, who was subsequently exposed as a fraud who was adept at sleight-of-hand tricks. In one of Zöllner’s experiments (pictured on the right), Slade’s “spirits” allegedly tied knots in a string that was sealed at both ends. Zöllner interpreted this as evidence that the spirits could move freely in a fourth spatial dimension.

Although Zöllner’s theories of the fourth dimension are almost forgotten today, they preceded the work of Charles Howard Hinton: Pioneer of the Fourth Dimension (mentioned recently in my post on Esoteric Mathematics) by several years. And as I said at the beginning, they can be seen as the ancestor of all subsequent New Age theories about “extradimensional entities”, as well as mainstream cosmological theories involving higher spatial dimensions.


Searle88 said...

Yes, the fourth dimension is an important, and relevant subject in parapsychology.In this regard,my developing project may be of interest.

Unknown said...

Andrew, author Kate Kelly suggested I read this post after reading one of her short stories which led me into thinking about such things as parallel worlds. While it was a regular coffee-house discussion back in the day when I was in college, it came up again recently. As you know, I've had a lifelong interest in Bigfoot/Yeti research. I have been following a particular field researcher who has been using Jane Goodall's techniques of habituation with a specific family of these hominids in an undisclosed area of the Oregon Cascades near Cave Junction, OR. His work has borne a great deal of fruit over several years and has been corroborated by many guests to the site. He has collected a great deal of forensic material and data, however they seem to have reached a plateau, and for a closer, more intimate knowledge of what they call the "Forest People" and for definitive scientific proof, they have not been able to take the research further using the non-invasive, non-threatening approach. He has however, began giving more credence to a suggestion from several of his visitors who believe they have seen glowing lights that have been associated with dimensional portals. He has begun expressing the belief that these hominds have developed some form of mental "cloaking" to remain unseen, or that they actually travel in and out between dimensions regularly, enabling them to escape when pursued. This initially made me feel that maybe he was venturing into Woo-Wooo territory, but maybe I'm too quick to judge. Have you heard such theorizing when it comes to cryptid species?

Andrew May said...

Thanks Richard - you have unwittingly given me the perfect opportunity to plug two of my own works!

In my short ebook "The Science of Bigfoot" ( I mention the possibility that Sasquatches have evolved psychic powers that help them avoid human contact. It's strange that this theory isn't mentioned more often, but there is surprisingly little overlap between "Bigfoot believers" and "ESP believers".

The idea of Bigfoot-like creatures coming through a dimensional portal is the theme of my humorous novelette "The Mechamical Gorilla" ( In the story, I credit the idea to Nick Redfern (a British author now resident in the U.S.), who has occasionally advocated "paranormal" theories of at least some Bigfoot-like sightings.