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“An attempt at visualizing the Fourth Dimension: Take a point, stretch it into a line, curl it into a circle, twist it into a sphere, and punch through the sphere” – Albert Einstein

Dr. Johann Karl Friedrich Zöllner, Defender of the Third Dimension

Dr. Johann Karl Friedrich Zöllner, Defender of the Third Dimension

I’ve recently come to the important conclusion that Dr. Buckaroo Banzai, fictional physicist, neuroscientist, test pilot, and rock musician featured in the 1984 cult science-fiction classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension was modeled after the all-too-real astrophysicist, perception psychologist, and strange phenomena investigator, Dr. Johann Karl Friedrich Zöllner (1834-1882) of Leipzig University.  While Zöllner never faced off with the Red Lectroids from Planet 10, he did explore the theoretical possibility that ghosts were invaders from the Fourth Dimension.

Zöllner’s academic credentials were impressive long before he started delving into the twilight realm of disembodied spirits.  He was chair of astrophysics at Leipzig University, intensively researching photometry, spectrum analysis, Doppler effects, and optical illusions, discovering the eponymously named Zöllner illusion where lines that are parallel appear diagonal and making the first accurate measurement of the Sun’s magnitude.  His good pal, Sir William Crookes, the equally polymath British physicist, chemist, and meteorologist (you can thank him for his work on “vacuum tubes”, without which you ultimately might not have been able to rot your brain through television), as well as a dabbler in economics and psychiatry, introduced Zöllner to the burgeoning world of spiritualism.

In the 1860’s after the untimely death of his brother from yellow fever, Crookes made a few efforts to contact his beloved sibling at séances, and being scientifically-inclined, proceeded to turn his stunning intellect to the question of paranormal phenomena, rapidly becoming convinced that spirit mediumship was, at least in some instances, genuine.  His critics, despite his monumental achievements to date explained what they termed his gullibility on his poor eyesight, in what was perhaps the lamest attempt at debunking on record.  Crooke’s investigations so convinced him that there was something to this whole spiritualist movement that he briefly became president of the Society for Psychical Research, joined the Theosophical Society, took up the presidency of the oldest paranormal investigation organization called The Ghost Club, and signed up for the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Now, Crookes was no epistemological slouch, so he tapped his friend Zöllner to suggest plausible scientific explanations for ghostly phenomena, and Zöllner obligingly took off on an intensive course of controlled experimental research, in particular with a famous slate-writing and table-rapping medium named Henry Slade, who would later confess that all his spiritualist manifestations were produced through magic tricks when he was investigated in 1885 by the Seybert Commission (a group of faculty at the University of Pennsylvania that were tasked with proving that Spiritualism was largely a con job, and unsurprisingly came to that very conclusion in the grand tradition of management consultancy).  While Crookes and Zöllner both concluded that in some cases fraud and hoaxing provided an adequate explanation for the weirdness they were encountering, neither was willing to declare the possibility of ghostly contact as complete hokum.  Zöllner turned his big brain towards seeking out a theory rooted in physics that might offer some insight.

Zöllner started to worry about the Fourth Dimension.  He hypothesized that if spirits of the dead inhabited a “real external world” of four spatial dimensions, in contrast to our mundane three-dimensional world, we would experience them as projected shadows onto our reality.  Later scholars such as the renowned and respected skeptic Cliff Pickover have puzzled over just such a question, and come to similar conclusions. Pickover, considering an analogy of what we would look like to a two dimensional being suggested, “Consider a two-dimensional world resembling a sheet of paper. How would you appear to the inhabitants of such a world if you tried to interact with them? The 2-D creatures would only see cross-sections of you as you intersected their universe. Your finger would look like a flat disc that grew in size as you pushed it through their world. Your five fingers might look like five separate circles. They would just see irregular shapes with skin boundaries as you entered their world. Similarly, a hyperbeing who lived in the fourth dimension would have a cross-section in our space that looked liked a bunch of skin blobs. A 4-D being would be a god to us. It would see everything in our world. It could even look inside your stomach and remove your breakfast without cutting through your skin, just like you could remove a dot inside a circle by moving it up into the third dimension, perpendicular to the circle, without breaking the circle. A hyperbeing can effortlessly remove things before your very eyes, giving you the impression that the objects simply disappeared. The hyperbeing can also see inside any 3-D object or life form, and if necessary remove anything from inside. The being can look inside our intestines, or remove a tumor from our brain without ever cutting through the skin. A pair of gloves can be easily transformed into two left or two right gloves. And 3-D knots fall apart in the hands of a hyperbeing, much as a 2-D knot (a loop of string lying on a plane) can easily be undone by a 3-D being simply by lifting the end of the loop up into the third dimension”.  This is more or less the same thing suggested by Zöllner in his 19th Century work Transcendental Physics.

A two-dimensional being can represent to itself a straight line with only one perpendicular (Normale) in the respective two-dimensional regions of space (to which it belongs phenomenally). We, on the contrary, as three-dimensional beings, know that there are infinitely many perpendiculars (Normale) to a straight line in space, which collectively form the two-dimensional geometrical place of the perpendicular plane of that straight line. Analogously, we can conceive only one perpendicular to a plane; a being of four dimensions would, however, be able to conceive infinitely many perpendiculars to a plane, collectively forming the three-dimensional place which in the fourth dimension stands perpendicular to that plane. By our nature as three-dimensional beings we could form for ourselves no representation of these space relations, although we are in the position to discover ideally, by analogy, the possibility of their real existence (Zöllner, 1881, p70).

While there is no clear record of Zöllner combatting insidious creatures from other dimensions, he was certainly considering what it might take and what defensive strategies could be used to fend off an incursion, and thus, as modern superstring theorists keep blithely talking about upwards of a dozen dimensions, we must rank Zöllner among those pilgrims of multi-dimensionality and sing his praises as a applied scientist who was not only concerned with elegant and wacky mathematical physics, but also wanted to know how we could identify the threat to the fraternity of third dimensionality.  He never got around to starting a rock band, nor even a string quartet (as would have been more appropriate to 19th Century Germany), but hey, do you have a lunar crater named after you?

Carington, Whatley, 1892-. A Theory of the Mechanism of Survival: the Fourth Dimension and Its Applications. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & co., ltd., 1920.
Manning, Henry Parker, 1859-1956. The Fourth Dimension Simply Explained: a Collection of Essays Selected From Those Submitted In the Scientific American’s Prize Competition. London: Methuen & co. ltd, 1921.
Zöllner, Johann Karl Friedrich, 1834-1882. Transcendental Physics: An Account of Experimental Investigations From the Scientific Treatises of Johann Carl Zöllner … Boston: Colby & Rich, 1881.