1998 Penguin Edition Introduction

Author: Alan Lightman

Abstract of Introduction: Lightman gives a fairly thorough overview of Flatland before focussing in on his thesis that: "the importance of the second part of Flatland lies not in its literal geometrical and dimensional discussion, but in its more shrouded warning of too much complacency in the scientific enterprise--and, by extension, all of life." Lightman supports this claim with a brief discussion of Einstein's relativity, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and several other scientific developments of the past century.

Excerpt: [...] But Abbott, if we read him deeply, has challenged us to question more than our tenets of geometry and physics. If the very dimensionality of space is open to question, then what beliefs remain sacred? What else should we question? For example: Is there really a sharp division between animate and inanimate matter? Could human consciousness be some kind of collective phenomenon, even though each of us has the strong sensation of individual thoughts and minds? Does the earth behave as a single living organism, with all of its physical and biological systems purposefully connected (as proposed in the "Gaia Hypothesis")? Do nonphysical dimensions exist? Does modern technology diminish, rather than enhance, the quality of life? I confess that I do not know how to ask these kinds of questions, or even what areas of thought they involve. I cannot conceive of a world with these possibilities. And that is the point. The inhabitants of Flatland could not conceive of a third dimension. By definition, it is extremely difficult to imagine worlds outside of experience. For that, we are as likely to receive guidance from our artists and philosophers, as from our mathematicians and scientists.

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