Highway at night. Source: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1192661
MY TWIN SISTER AND I were born on 15 August 1942 a month or so premature. However faulty our timing, much later we learned we were part of an alleged birth spike in America back then. We were “Pearl Harbor babies” conceived in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on the United States on December 7th—the day that would live in infamy.
However true or false this categorization, as time goes by the evident reality of time becomes increasingly hard personally for me to ignore. But wait. What exactly is time ? Sure I may be getting older, but does time have anything to do with it?
It is conventional wisdom that whatever it is, time is more than just one thing after another, moment to moment, day to day, year to year, and so on. In fact, we often speak of time as something within which, or over which, we pass the time, as the saying goes.
All this, however, begs the issue. Regardless how we talk about time, what is it we are trying to talk about? More to the point, what does time have to do with exploring something I want to suggest we should call the 5th dimension of reality?
Wayne, Wendy, and Wally
I suspect like most of us, you may agree there are three primary dimensions in the universe, and in English they are called length, width, and depth. If so, I beg to disagree with you at least about one thing. I wish they were instead called Wayne, Wendy, and Wallace (Wally).
Why? Because then it might be more obvious that this famous 3D trio is just something we humans have made up to satisfy our own needs. These dimensions are not really “out there” waiting for us to measure them.
If you don’t care for my choice of names, how about Larry, Curly, and Moe? These names don’t work for me. My twin and I have always hated The Three Stooges. Yet there is no disputing taste. Go for them if they strike your pleasure centers.
What I am trying to get at whatever words are favored is this. When we say things have three dimensions, what we are really saying is that we can pinpoint something in space by taking three standard (usually orthogonal) measurements. This doesn’t necessarily mean what we are measuring is unreal. It just means what we are measuring doesn’t have dimensions. We give it dimensions.
This may sound like gobbledygook, but stay with me. Knowing this means things don’t just have three dimensions. They can have as many as we want to give them. Weight, for instance. Color. Texture. Don’t be shy. Use your imagination.
Where then does time fit in?
No doubt it, taking measurements such as Wayne, Wendy, and Wally—also known as length, width, and depth—can be extremely useful if you are building a house, or trying to get something into the back of your car. But they are still only measurements. They are arbitrary. Made up. We can take them, but we can’t find them. They aren’t a part of nature. They aren’t a part of the universe. They are just one of the ways we try to grapple with the world and the universe we live in.
By many accounts, time is the 4th dimension of reality. This may be so, but isn’t time also something you can run out of? And in contrast, isn’t it true nobody in their right mind would ever say they are worried or depressed about running out of any of the other three dimensions that time is traditionally associated with—namely length, width, and depth?
So is time a different kind of dimension? Maybe one that is real rather than just convenient or arbitrary?
But isn’t time real?
Commonsense may tell us that time really is something out there to be measured. Yet in truth and also in practice, time isn’t a thing but rather a sequential relationship: a series of events related to one another by the seemingly elementary fact of following after one another.
Time is a centerpiece of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. It is reported that he was asked so often to explain his abstruse theory in terms mere mortals could understand that he came up with a jovial illustration: “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.”
Ever since Einstein published his special (1905) and general (1915-1916) theories, the conventional idea—popularly credited to Sir Isaac Newton—that time is something that exists both apart from our awareness of it, and also marches to its own drummer has been banished from serious scientific consideration.
But what then is time and what does it have to do with the 5th dimension of reality?
Four dimensional space-time
Once Einstein’s view of time is accepted, time joins length, width, and depth as one of the dimensions of reality that are arbitrary rather than “out there” and absolute. In other words, we can take time but we can’t find time, so to speak. Time is simply one of the ways in which we try to pinpoint something not just in space but in space-time.
In their popular book on the nature of reality The Grand Design, the late Stephen Hawking and his colleague Leonard Mlodinow explore how we as mere human beings are compelled to see things from the limited perspective of our species, however grand we may believe ourselves to be. More specifically, “the measurement of time taken, like the measurement of . . . distance covered, depends on the observer doing the measuring” (page 97).
Said another way, it is not possible to determine for any given event exactly when it happens since different observers will have their own take on time depending on whether they are moving together with one another through space-time, or differently.
If you have read this book by Hawking and Mlodinow, or some other guide to Einstein’s ideas about relativity, you know that his general theory also tells us that space-time is not flat, but is curved and distorted by the mass and energy within it. However, as fascinating as this topic may be, it is time to move on to talk about what I propose should be our shared understanding of what I want to call the 5th dimension of reality.
How many dimension of reality are there?
I have already remarked that since they are arbitrary and not actually a part of nature and the universe, we can have as many dimensions to work with as we have need of. Physicists and mathematicians would apparently phrase this observation in this fashion: if it helps you understand something, then it’s OK to assume that what you are interested in is located within an N-dimensional space. The “N” here meaning the number of dimensions you want to build your ideas around.
There are those today working in theoretical physics who say the number of dimensions needed to understand the fundamental workings of the universe may be as high as 10, possibly even 11. In his well-received popular book Reality Is Not What It Seems (2014, English transl. 2017), the physicist Carlo Rovelli has a lot to tell us about how many dimensions we need to keep in mind while he is surveying what scientists are currently proposing about quantum gravity, that esoteric side of theoretical physics whose practitioners are struggling to combine quantum mechanics with Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
Not all of Rovelli’s peers see eye to eye with him about what he says in this book. In a snarky review in The New York Times in 2017, Lisa Randall, who is a professor of theoretical particle physics at Harvard University, caustically suggests he is romanticizing physics. (I guess it is possible for some people to be swept off their feet when it comes to quantum gravity.) She also frets that “when deceptively fluid science writing permits misleading interpretations to seep in, I fear that the floodgates open to more dangerous misinformation.”
She may well be on to something when she says what Rovelli tells us isn’t always right, and maybe he does at times misleadingly give us his own ideas as established facts. What strikes me as worth noting, however, is what Randall doesn’t like about what Rovelli says about the lowly electron.
She makes much of the fact that when explaining quantum mechanics, Rovelli says: “Electrons don’t always exist. They exist when they interact.” She says this claim is way off the mark:
Stocks may not achieve a precise value until they are traded, but that doesn’t mean we can’t approximate their worth until they change hands. Similarly electrons might not have definite properties, but they do exist. It’s true that the electron doesn’t exist as a classical object with definite position until the position is measured. But something was there — which physicists use a wave function to describe.
Exploring the 5th dimension of reality
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. I have absolutely no idea whether Rovelli is or isn’t right about the surprisingly controversial electron. I am not even sure I understand Randall’s objection. On the other hand, I am pretty sure she (and probably he) wouldn’t agree with me about what is the 5th dimension of reality.
Physicists evidently think they have this one more or less already in the bag. In my defense, I am going to reiterate that we can have as many dimensions as we need, and I need a fifth dimension to be able to write about dynamic network analysis. Let me now tell you why.
Randall is right. Rovelli does say in this book that electrons don’t always exist. But he says a lot more than just that. While telling us about Werner Heisenberg and the mysterious “quantum leaps” that appear to underlie the structure of atomic spectra, he asks rhetorically: “What if the electron could be something that only manifests itself when it interacts, when it collides with something else; and that between one interaction and another, it had no precise position?”
Rovelli then tells us that the hardest key to quantum mechanics is this one: the relational aspect of things (pages 119–120). Because I think his observation is so important, I am going to repeat in full the quotation from his book that Randall (above) has found so objectionable:
Electrons don’t always exist. They exist when they interact. They materialize in a place when they collide with something else. The “quantum leaps” from one orbit to another constitute their way of being real: an electron is a combination of leaps from one interaction to another.
Why do I find this observation so relevant to what I want to talk about in this series of posts on dynamic network analysis and the 5th dimension of reality? For me, the key elements are these:
- 1. Dynamic network analysis assumes that things, people, and places can be physically located in space and time.
- 2. The focus of analysis is on the characteristics of people (and their behavior), places, and events in space and time.
- 3. The premise of dynamic network analysis is that the characteristics of things, people, and places are circumstantial and contingent on the interactions—the relationships—among the elements being studied (I like to call them the ingredients of the investigation).
As I will be exploring in the next post in this series, another and more familiar name for this 5th dimension of reality is what Charles Darwin called “descent with modification.” Also known as evolution, although not necessarily what Darwin himself meant by this familiar and controversial word.
what on earth is this?
NASA’s explanation for the stellar phenomenon shown above: “Blown by the wind from a star, this tantalizing, ghostly apparition is cataloged as NGC 7635, but known simply as The Bubble Nebula. Astronomer Ken Crawford’s striking view combines a long exposure through a hydrogen alpha filter with color images to reveal the intricate details of this cosmic bubble and its environment. Although it looks delicate, the 10 light-year diameter bubble offers evidence of violent processes at work. Seen here above and left of the Bubble’s center is a bright hot star embedded in telltale blue hues characteristic of dust reflected starlight. A fierce stellar wind and intense radiation from the star, which likely has a mass 10 to 20 times that of the Sun, has blasted out the structure of glowing gas against denser material in a surrounding molecular cloud. The intriguing Bubble Nebula lies a mere 11,000 light-years away toward the boastful constellation Cassiopeia.”
This is Part 4 of a continuing series of posts on dynamic network analysis. Next up: 5. What’s a relationship?
© 2018 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.