Why so Three-Dimensional?

I’ve put a lot of thought into the best way to re-open this blog, after a period in which I couldn’t update it.  I will be speeding up production, of course, but that’s not enough on its own.  So I thought I’d kick off with a sample of something I think about that naturally lends itself to Science Fiction writing.

M-Theory is the so-called “unified theory” intended to combine special relativity and superstring theory.  Its primary impediments to being generally accepted is that it is nearly impossible for many people to visualize and even harder to test.  As a writer of advanced alien species and/or time-traveling engineers, however, having a basic grasp of the theory is sometimes not enough.  If Scotty or the Doctor are required to use multi-dimensional solutions to solve problems on a regular basis, the best recourse for the writer is to be able to understand things that their characters have an instinctive grasp of.

So I am going to bring you to our next step: Microsoft Excel, or Lotus 1-2-3, or OpenOffice Calc, or your spreadsheet program of choice (preferably the most recent incarnation).  This may seem like a strange place to discuss 12D physics, but hear me out.

The most useful thing about spreadsheets is that they exist in the form of an axis.  The Columns are obviously the X axis, just as the rows are clearly the Y axis.  Most of these programs offer multiple sheets, which gives us a Z axis.  An adept Excel user is just as skilled at working in three dimensions as a Starfleet Captain playing a game of 3D chess.

But for our analogy to work, we need more than three dimensions.  This is where it’s going to get tricky, because the human brain has not yet evolved to easily perceive more than three spacial definitions.  But, being an amazing computer, it is still capable of storing information as such.

Anybody who has worked heavily with Excel will be familiar with what I’m about to describe, but for those who have not, you deserve a paragraph of explanation.  Spreadsheet programs are generally able to have multiple sheets interact with one another.  This can be used for simple things (such as changing dates and other information) and for more complex tasks.  For some complex actions, such as looking up input options or their results, entire sheets may be dedicated to processing and organizing this information.  These sheets are often marked so as only to be used by the “programmer”, or owner of the sheet, particularly in complicated workbooks.

The most common method of marking these owner-only sheets, at least in programs that have this function – is to color them differently.  This adds a visual element that is particularly of merit to this discussion.  One of the more complex workbooks I’ve created six “public” pages and five “programmer” ones, and for ease of access putting the “public” pages to the left wasn’t always functional.  I colored the public sheets to match the Windows background, with the sheets for my use only colored grey.  This gave the workbook a visual dimension in which the easy to use pages appeared closer and the coding pages appeared to be further away.  If your important text is black and your less important text is grey, you’re using the same system we discussed on the sheet tabs.  You’re essentially creating text that is “farther away” from your core three dimensions.

If my explanation ended there, though, I would be cheating, because this is essentially the same axis (we can call it the α axis, to distinguish from the day to day axes) that our grey tabs were located on.  Or it would be, if not for the fact that you can still place “farther away” text on “farther away” tabs.  For this reason, we will call this the β axis.

That is all well and good (you might say), but if we are stretching to accommodate five spacial dimensions, how are we possibly going to reach the theorized 12 dimensions?  To start with, I’m not even going to go into detail about the fact that hue, brightness and saturation can all be used as separate axes, if only because I generally find that to be too much hassle.  For the sake of completionism, we can call hue and saturation Δ and Γ, respectively.

But the core of M-Theory is that matter can exist along dimensions that we cannot perceive.   Even though we have now perceived a total of 7 dimensions in this piece, there are many more dimensions “curled up” that we cannot perceive.  Unfortunately, this is where somebody without coding experience may get a little lost.

A function is a way to process information on a spreadsheet.  This helps the sheet to become a living document, capable of not only receiving information but giving it as well.  The thing is, unless you zoom in to the interior of a single cell – blocking out from your perception the 7 dimensions we have already discussed – you cannot see the function.  Each function, therefore, exists along its own axis, with only the output of the function being perceived by someone viewing it from any other axis.  Within a function you can “nest” other functions, each processing information on a new axis with only the result visible by someone viewing the outer function.

Each cell of a Microsoft Excel workbook is capable of nesting up to 64 functions.  That means we would need another alphabet – if not two – in order to label them all.  That may be daunting to keep track of if you are not used to it, but as Cypher in The Matrix once implied with the “blonde, brunette, redhead” line, an experienced programmer sees the function and its results simultaneously.

Since we’re nearing the end, I’d like to pause this lecture on post-quantum physics to marvel at this.  The human brain exists in three spacial dimensions, yet the practiced brain is capable of – if not effortlessly – perceiving details in a whopping 71 dimensions if you only take into account these real-world examples.  If we can help science catch up, the possibilities are limitless.

To recap, while these details seem far-off and strange in our day to day world, simply by looking at programs that many people who are not engineers or theoretical physicists use we can understand more about how the world works.  Here, we’ve experienced multiple versions of things that are “farther away” while simultaneously being completely independent of one another.  We’ve also seen even more distant “hidden” dimensions that we are able to grasp only one point on.  Now you’re part way to seeing how your favorite aliens see the world – but only part.

This all sounds fairly simple, until you realize that the “further away” dimension is independent of the X, Y and Z dimensions – the horizontal, the vertical and the lateral – that our world takes place in.  By familiarizing yourself with this workbook, you have familiarized yourself with a 4D space.  Pretty easy, right?

From here, it gets progressively more complicated, but stay with me.  On the sheets themselves, there are a lot of elements, so it might be a little bit more difficult to distinguish dimensions.  Still, color applies in the same way.

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