In 1884, an amiably eccentric clergyman and literary scholar named Edwin Abbott Abbott published an odd philosophical novel called Flatland
, in which he explored such things as four-dimensional mathematics and gently satirized some of the orthodoxies of his time. The book went on to be a bestseller in Victorian England, and it has remained in print ever since.
With Flatterland, Ian Stewart, an amiable professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick, updates the science of Flatland, adding literally countless dimensions to Abbott's scheme of things ("Your world has not just four dimensions," one of his characters proclaims, "but five, fifty, a million, or even an infinity of them! And none of them need be time. Space of a hundred and one dimensions is just as real as a space of three dimensions"). Along his fictional path, Stewart touches on Feynman diagrams, superstring theory, time travel, quantum mechanics, and black holes, among many other topics. And, in Abbott's spirit, Stewart pokes fun at our own assumptions, including our quest for a Theory of Everything.
You can't help but be charmed by a book with characters named Superpaws, the Hawk King, the Projective Lion, and the Space Hopper and dotted with doggerel such as "You ain't nothin' but a hadron / nucleifyin' all the time" and "I can't get no / more momentum." And, best of all, you can learn a thing or two about modern mathematics while being roundly entertained. That's no small accomplishment, and one for which Stewart deserves applause. --Gregory McNamee
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From Publishers Weekly
Higher mathematics and low comedy intersect acutely in this fuzzy follow-up to Edwin Abbott's 1884 classic, Flatland. Where Abbott's compact fable about a two-dimensional world discomposed by the discovery of a third dimension was a jeu d'esprit that slyly satirized rigid Victorian society, Stewart's sequel is an episodic ramble through the "flatterland" of modern mathematical theory that begins when teenaged Flatlander Vikki Line, great-great-granddaughter of Abbott's narrator, uses her ancestor's "hysterical document" as a passport to the Mathiverse. Accompanied by a Space Hopper guide, she tours landmarks of the post-Einsteinian universe that include fractal geometry, black holes, cosmic strings and quantum theory. Stewart (The Science of Discworld) keeps the tone light with incessant puns (a one-sided cow named "Moobius") and plays on names ("the Hawk King," who presides over a wormhole-ridden realm in the space-time continuum). The many line drawings that illustrate the text are both amusing and instructive. But the terrain Stewart sets out to explore is vast and abstract, and not all of the subjects he covers find a proper social analogue or cultural referent. The result is that lessons Vikki learns on some of the more abstruse principles still have a textbook stuffiness that even the author's Carrollian wit can't leaven. Though perplexing in spots, the tale is ever enchanting, and its user-friendly blend of fiction and nonfiction proves that the comic and cosmic need not be mutually exclusive. (May 1)Forecast: With advertising in Scientific American and the New Yorker and a 50,000-copy first printing, this should be a hit with the literate elite who also appreciate math and science.
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