Friday, February 22, 2008

Doggerel #137: "Dimension"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

I've read Flatland and Sphereland. I recommend you read them, too, if you've been overly contaminated by the typical sci-fi use of the term. A lot of woos are. I think "dimension" is a poor term for alternate universes, elseworlds, different planes of existence, etcetera. "Dimension" better refers to height, width, depth, time, and the various dimensions those cosmologists are working on. I heard we're up to ten or so. If you want to add some more, show us the math.

In the old days, religion liked to hide heaven in the sky and hell deep underground. Now that we can examine those areas, some woos have resorted to hiding magic in alleged dimensions. Of course, that doesn't change the fact that their woo doesn't do what they claim it does. It only serves to make it look harder to verify, as if science only worked like sci-fi scanning devices and was so easily limited.

Another use of the term is less "scientific" and more illustrative, often dealing with convenient abstractions for complex processes. One example, from my days of playing Magic: The Gathering was "card advantage," which essentially dealt with the benefits of increasing the number of cards working for you at any time: Draw more, prevent your opponent from drawing, kill two enemy cards with one of yours, etcetera. That's one aspect of a complex process. Though I've encountered it less often, sometimes woos like to talk about these sorts of dimensions to make an issue appear more complex when such dimensions can be studied independently of others.


Don said...

I've got to the point where I'm almost inured to the pop-cultural inundation of the incorrect definition. It's just annoying one of those damn sci-fi things contributing in some small fashion to scientific illiteracy, like visible laser beams or FTL travel.

Though, unlike FTL travel, it isn't a storytelling necessity. If they'd just start saying "planes" or "alternate realities," maybe the confusion would go away after a while.

Flavin said...

I heard we're up to ten or so. If you want to add some more, show us the math.

I'd rather be shown the evidence. How about we subtract a few dimensions until we can't subtract any more—I'd put odds on getting back down to four pretty quickly—then we can talk about why some scientists think we need more and how we can test for them.

Though I guess it's not you I need to convince, BD, it's the Discovery Channel.

Anonymous said...

That's a good point Flavin. Adding an extra dimension is actually pretty easy math. Want one? Bam. Y axis. 2? There ya go, X. 2 more? How about Z and W for your trouble?

12? Sure thing. Let's define A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, J, K, M, N.

The math is easy enough to do, add a new axis. There just needs to be justification for needing those extra dimensions.

Bronze Dog said...

I was largely referring to a lot of woos out there who try to refer to concepts like dimension without using any math with it to form an explanatory model for existing evidence.

Flavin said...

Oh, no question, I agree with your inclusion of "dimension" in the Doggerel series. You're right that almost any time a nonscientist uses the word "dimension," they use it to mean "alternate universes, elseworlds, different planes of existence, etcetera." My favorite example is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' Dimension X.

I was trying to make the ancillary and superfluous point that string theory is hokum.

Wikinite said...

I had a thermo professor who insisted that time was a pseudo-dimension, since time is one-way (as far as we know).

Sure we can plot a time versus distance graph and 'go backwards' by retreating down the graph, but that is more an artifact of the math rather than a physical property of time.