Maths: now in novel form

Maths: now in novel form

“I call our world Flatland, not because we call it so, but to make its nature clearer to you, my happy readers, who are privileged to live in space.”

First and foremost, I am not a mathematician. I believe that people are divided into two types – numbers people and letters people, and I am strictly a letters person. Syllables, words, sentences and chapters, that’s where I am. I don’t get numbers. They’re too … rigid? There’s no ambiguity with maths. I suppose that is what attracts some people to it.

Flatland is less a novel and more of a mathematical-cum-philosophical treatise. It is narrated by A. Square, a charming and intelligent square who lives in the titular Flatland. This is a two-dimensional world where existence is limited to length and width. Rain flows from the north so pentagonal houses are built with their roofs facing that. Men take the forms of triangles, squares, hexagons and circles, while women are all merely straight lines.

One day, our square narrator is visited by a stranger from Spaceland, a world of three dimensions, much like ours. This stranger is a sphere, and attempts to explain to the square the nature of a third dimension, much to the disbelief of the square, until he sees it with his own eyes. He feels compelled to inform his fellow flat citizens of what he has seen.

The novel is split quite definitely into two parts. The first details the world of Flatland and gives a lot of exposition of the world. It explains how everyone can only ever see a line, so cannot see shapes, and must feel one another to determine their shapes. It explains the hierarchy of the world, with isoceles triangle soldiers at the bottom and priestly circles with (for the sake of argument) thousands of tiny sides at the top. The second half of the novel has the square dealing with his visitor and learning about the third dimension.

Not only am I not a mathematician, I am also not a huge reader of the classics, so this book is a step out of my comfort zone in two ways. However, the book has lasted and I can understand why. It is very clever, although Abbott handwaves many aspects of the universe, such as their writing system or how they build houses, merely suggesting that the narrator doesn’t have time to go into it all. This is a very clever book though, masterfully worded to explain the nature of dimensions, to understand how shapes can see one another, and to give food for thought for us in the third dimension that there may just be a fourth dimension above us that we cannot see. And if a fourth, then why not a fifth, sixth or seventh?

It’s worth a look and can be read very quickly, but it errs on the side of “inform” rather than “entertain” in places, and can be quite dry. Still, when the author is a teacher and theologian whose only other books were school textbooks, that can hardly come as a surprise. There are also some parallels with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which is also said to be a maths essay in disguise. This is just a little more sane (although not much).