Time as the Fourth Dimension

Your world has four dimensions. Three dimensions are space; time is the fourth. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? And yet, it took HG Wells to lead the way.

The Time Traveller in Wells’ classic 1895 novel The Time Machine explains it simply enough, “There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space, except that our consciousness moves along it”.

Now, the notion was nothing new. Relating time to space had a long history, going all the way back to Aristotle. Even though industrialisation had led to a C19th obsession with time, most regarded the fourth dimension as spatial. Wells begged to differ. And in so doing he opened up a new and exciting chapter in the history of ideas.

Time was in the ether.

It splashed upon the canvas of the Cubists. Artists such as Picasso and Braque produced paintings where various viewpoints were visible in the same plane, at the same time. All dimensions were used to give the subject a greater sense of depth. It was a revolutionary new way of looking at reality.

Time was captured in cinema, and the stop-motion photography of Étienne-Jules Marey. It inspired Marcel Duchamp to paint his highly controversial Nude Descending a Staircase, which depicted time and motion by successive superimposed images. The Americans were scandalised.

Physics caught the fever. Einstein introduced Special Relativity in 1905. At first, he spoke of three spatial dimensions, and time. It was only after his teacher, Hermann Minkowski, promoted the view of time as the fourth dimension that the notion of the space-time continuum was created. It was essential to the development of Einstein’s later work in General Relativity, and it is very precisely the concept that Wells pioneered.

Spacetime was born. Einstein gave us a new perspective on the fourth dimension. Moving clocks run slow. Time is slowed down by gravity. And the speed of light is the same no matter how the observer is moving. It was a revolution in time. And it seemed to worry Salvador Dali. For many, his anxiety is palpable in his famous painting, The Persistence of Memory. The floppy clocks are history’s most graphic illustration of Einsteinian gravity distorting time.

The obsession with the fourth dimension continued.

One fascination was the time paradox.  This can be nut-shelled by the question, “what would happen if I went back in time and killed my own granddad”.  The skill of tampering with time in this way reached its genius peak with Robert A Heinlein’s All You Zombies (1959).  The main character of the story moves along the fourth dimension, undergoes a sex change, and becomes his/her own mother and father.  Weird.

A second attraction was The Butterfly Effect.  The idea first found its voice in fiction with Ray Bradbury’s moral fable A Sound of Thunder (1952).  A time-tourist wreaks temporal havoc by treading on a prehistoric butterfly and unleashing an alternative world.  The story told of sensitive dependence upon initial conditions.  It was written a full ten years before early pioneer of chaos theory, Edward Lorenz, developed the principles for the scientific community through mathematics and meteorology.

Since the 1960s we’ve had String Theory.  This ‘Theory of Everything’ suggests a more complex picture than even HG Wells imagined.  The universe may be made up of incredibly small strings vibrating in a space-time continuum consisting of 11 dimensions.  The first four effective (observable) dimensions that Wells spoke of in The Time Machine, plus seven minor (smaller) dimensions.

So, after all, even though we live in a four-dimensional world, there may well be other dimensions we cannot perceive.  Perhaps it was on this basis that a character in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (1973) was described as having, “a penis eight hundred miles long and two hundred and ten miles in diameter, but practically all of it was in the fourth dimension”.

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